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Likely Voters and Mid-Term Elections, Part II (The 1934 Mid-Term Election)

08/21/2009 01:07 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In my earlier post (Part I) on this subject, I suggested it would be a political miracle if Democrats did not lose U.S. House seats in the 2010 election. A major reason is that in mid-term elections, the voters most likely to turn out are those who are disgruntled with the policies of the incumbent president, rather than his supporters. In fact, since Democrats and Republicans first began competing against each other for Congress in the mid-19th Century, the president's party has lost seats in mid-term elections, relative to the "out" party, all but three times - 1934, 1998 and 2002.

 

The two most recent times seem to be special situations that are likely to have little relevance for 2010. The 2002 mid-term election saw the president's party pick up a few seats, probably because the country was still rallying around the flag in reaction to the terrorist attacks the previous year. President Bush's approval rating was still high (Gallup showed it at 68 percent in a poll conducted Nov. 8-10, 2002).

 

And the 1998 mid-term election found voters quite dissatisfied with the Republicans' vote to impeach President Clinton, apparently a major reason why the president's party was able to pick up a few House seats. In both years, the Republicans enjoyed slim majorities, and the changes did not affect their majority control.

 

If neither of the two exceptions just noted appear to have much relevance to what might happen in 2010, the third exception (the first chronologically) is a different story. Taking place just two years after President Roosevelt came into office during the Great Depression, the 1934 mid-term election campaign focused largely on the New Deal measures adopted by Congress. The result was a net increase of 9 seats for the president's party - from 313 to 322. Democrats today no doubt hope that a similar debate about the economic stimulus bills and health care reform will be a positive inducement for voters next year.

 

That's where the differing poll results - depending on whether the pollsters use "likely voters" or not - provide an interesting story. The latest results (noted in my previous article) suggest the Democrats have an overall lead in the congressional house vote of from six to seven percentage points among the general public or registered voters, but are apparently in a dead heat with Republicans based on likely voters.

 

If indeed, the two-party aggregate vote is about even on Election Day, that would almost certainly result in major seat losses for the Democrats, though it's difficult to say how many. The aggregate two party vote (the total voting for Democrats vs. Republicans in the country as a whole) is not a perfect indicator of how well the parties fare in winning House seats. In 2002, for example, the Republicans won 54.1 percent of the two-party vote nationwide, but got 52.6 percent of the House seats. In 2004, they won a smaller percent of the two-party vote (51.4 percent) but picked up three seats, expanding their majority to 53.3 percent of the seats.

 

In 2006, the Democrats won 54.2 percent of the aggregate vote, and won about the same percentage of House seats - 53.6 percent. Two years later, their share of the national vote increased by only .4 percent (to 54.6 percent), but they gained 21 seats to hold 59.0 percent of the House seats.

 

Despite the inconsistency between the percentage of the national vote and the percentage of House seats won by the majority party, a tie vote nationally would likely cause the Democrats to lose a significant number of seats. The Democrats beat the Republicans in 2006 and 2008 by about 8 to 9 percentage points. Currently, not many polls suggest the Democrats will win by that margin in 2010.

 

Of course, with more than a year to go, much can happen to shape the political landscape. No doubt, the most salient domestic issues will be the stimulus bills and health care reform, and no one knows for sure what will happen to the latter. And then there is always the possibility of some major international event that could influence the elections.

 

Democrats may hope for a repeat of the 1934 mid-term election, but history tells us the circumstances will have to be quite unusual for that to happen. As indicated in Part I, given the expected low turnout, I'd be especially attentive to the preferences of "likely voters." If they indicate a Democratic lead of 8 to 10 points, that would be unusual indeed.

 

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