Looking Forward to November

A question we're likely to hear often in the coming weeks and months is, "[h]ow will the Republicans do in the 2014 elections?"

It's always risky to prognosticate about an election still eleven months away, but this essay explores the factors shaping how Americans have voted in past off-year elections held during a president's sixth year in office.

I eschew commenting on political controversies for two reasons. First, most American voters have very short memories, and major issues agitating the body politic today -- e.g., ObamaCare -- may be merely minor irritants by November. Second, I don't know how Democrats will try to "change the subject" by dredging up other topics -- war-on-women, class warfare, yada, yada, yada -- but I know they'll try, and their mainstream media (MSM) stooges will help.

The historical record suggests 2014 should be a good year for Republicans -- although the GOP's penchant for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory is well-known -- but not on the same scale as 2010 and 1994.

Let's consider the good news first, and then explore some more sobering evidence.

One aspect of American politics that should work to the GOP's advantage is that the party of a president in his sixth year in office usually loses congressional seats in off-year elections. Since the end of World War II, there have been six such elections: 1958, 1966, 1974, 1986, 1998, and 2006.

1946 would be a seventh "six-year" election, but it transpired after FDR and Harry Truman had held the presidency for 14 years. (1946 was considered a referendum on Truman. Evidently, the voters took out their ire at him on the Democrats, who lost 55 House seats and 11 Senate seats.)

Why, then, list 1966? LBJ had been president for just three years, and was only two years from his landslide victory. Nevertheless, I include 1966 because it occurred six years after JFK narrowly won in 1960.

With 1946 eliminated, the president's party has lost an average of 35.6 seats in the House of Representatives, and 6.8 seats in the Senate in five of the six elections listed above. 1998 bucked the trend; in that year, Democrats gained 5 seats in the House and 3 in the Senate. 1998 was the year of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and the campaign to impeach and convict Bill Clinton was in full swing.

Clinton was "saved" by a robust economy and an aggressive campaign to demonize his critics.

Purists will point to exceptional circumstances in each of the six years. In 1958, for example, the economy was in recession for which Dwight Eisenhower and the Republicans were being blamed. The 1974 elections occurred just months after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, and an even briefer interval since Jerry Ford pardoned him. The 1986 elections happened just as the "Contragate" scandal was erupting, and 2006 occurred in the midst of two unpopular wars and frequent MSM reports of GOP corruption.

So be it, but the trend exists nonetheless.

Another factor that should help the Republicans is who votes and who doesn't.

If we restrict attention to elections since the XXVIth Amendment lowered the legal voting age to 18, the average turnout in the eleven presidential contests since 1972 is 58.1% of the voting-age population (VAP), while the mean turnout rate for the ten "off-year" elections since 1974 is 39.7% of the VAP. This is what gives that well-known saw-tooth pattern to turnout in U.S. elections over the years, up in presidential years, down in off-years.
Many factors are responsible for the saw-tooth pattern of turnout in American elections, but two merit mentions.

Usually because there is less media coverage of off-year elections than of presidential races -- mostly because presidential candidates aren't traipsing around the country and there are no nationally televised "debates" -- voters tend to be considerably less interested in off-year elections than in presidential contests. Voter participation, therefore, is also lower, by an average of about 18 percentage points since the early 1970s.

Research by Angus Campbell -- one of the foremost voting behavior researchers in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s -- found that the kinds of people who routinely vote in presidential elections, but abstain in off-years, are different from those who habitually vote in presidential and off-year elections. Campbell labeled the former group "peripheral" voters. They make up roughly 30% of the typical electorate in presidential races. These are people who are motivated to vote by the excitement of presidential contests, which he called "high-stimulus" elections, but whose habitual inattention to politics contributes to abstention from voting in so-called "low-stimulus" off-year elections. Campbell named the second type "core" voters.

Research by Angus Campbell and later by Albert Cover and by James Campbell -- no relation to Angus -- indicates that "peripheral" voters are more likely than "core" voters to manifest attributes that correlate with voting for Republicans.

What this suggests is that Obama's key voters -- blacks, Hispanics, unmarried women, and people under 30 -- are probably less inclined to vote in 2014 than in 2012, whereas Romney's most loyal voters in 2012 -- white men, married women, and those over 65 -- will vote. (I do not say that either Obama's or Romney's loyal voting blocs will manifest the same party allegiance this year as in 2012, but past voting patterns generally predict future ones.)

Before concluding that 2014 bodes to be a Republican sweep like the "shellacking" Democrats took in 2010, consider the following.

First, unlike the 2010 elections, when Democrat majorities in the House had been swollen by huge gains in 2006 and 2008, the Democrats enter the 2014 House races with a much smaller delegation. It will be harder for the GOP to pick up additional Democrat House seats than in 2010.

The GOP may be in better shape in Senate races this year. Five of the six retirements (announced so far) are Democrats; open seats are easier for a previously "out" party to pick up. In addition, four more seats now held by Democrats -- in Alaska, Louisiana, Arkansas, and North Carolina -- are in states normally thought to be Republican.

Even so, recent voting patterns in America indicate that incumbency is a powerful advantage. So don't count these senators out yet.

Let's get back to resignations/retirements from Congress, since several may affect how elections turn out. At least two GOP House seats that have been held by Republicans in so-called "swing" districts -- Frank Wolf in Virginia's Tenth Congressional District (CD) and Tom Latham in Iowa's Third CD -- may "flip" to become Democrat seats.

Since no one can say what may happen before November, perhaps the best advice concerning the partisan implications of resignations/retirements -- and deaths for that matter -- is "who knows?"

Finally, internecine battles may hurt the GOP this year. Country-club Republicans have warred against their conservative "brothers" and "sisters" for decades, and they seem to be ramping up the rhetoric (and the money to pay for the ads) this year. That may cause Tea Partiers to refrain from voting next November. (Some did that in 2012.) If that happens, the only winners will be Obama and the Democrats.

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