While the media is increasingly talking about the 2016 presidential election, we have a major election coming up for control of Congress later this year. At present it appears that it is unlikely for the Democrats to take control of the House, and they are now fighting to retain control of the Senate. Predictions that the Republicans will hold the House and possibly take the Senate are based upon historical trends and which Senate seats are up for reelection this year. Of course it is possible to see a break from past trends.
Among the trends causing people to predict this to be a good year for Republicans: minorities and young voters don’t vote as often in off-year elections, a president’s party generally does poorly in the sixth year of the president’s term, a president’s party does poorly when the president has low approval ratings, and a president’s party does poorly when the economy is having difficulties.
On top of this, the Democrats are defending Senate seats in several red states this year, giving the Republicans a chance to pick up some seats. Fortunately the situation is reversed in 2016 with more blue-state Republicans up for reelection. Based upon these fundamentals in a presidential election which is likely to already be more favorable to the party, a Democrat winning the White House should also see a pick up of several Senate seats.
The Republican Party has been working in other ways to pick up votes. They have made voter suppression a major part of their electoral strategy, along with continuing the Southern Strategy based upon racism and now xenophobia. On the other hand, their history of racism may backfire with the increase in minority voters, possibly turning some southern states blue in the near future. We saw this first in Virginia and to a lesser degree in North Carolina. In the future this could extend to Georgia, Texas, and additional states.
Republicans have an advantage in keeping control of the House as so many House districts are gerrymandered to protect the incumbent. In addition, Democrats tend to be more concentrated in urban areas, meaning that even if more people vote for Democrats than Republicans, the Republicans will win more seats by small margins while Democrats will win a smaller number with bigger majorities. More people voted for Democrats than Republicans in Congressional races in 2012 but the Republicans retained control of the House. It would probably take at least a seven percent margin of victory for Democrats to take control of the House. Republican representation in the Senate is also exaggerated compared to their level of support due to lesser populated Republican states having the same number of Senators as more populated Democratic states.
There are some things which could throw off the fundamentals this year, but we cannot count on voters suddenly no longer being fooled by the GOP line. At present the Republicans receive far too many votes from low-information white voters. Over time the number of younger voters who receive their fake news from Jon Stewart will overtake the older voters who receive their fake news from Fox.
While Obama’s approval rating is low, Congress has an even lower approval rating. Typically in such situations people like their own Congressman even if they disapprove of Congress. This year polls show that many people also think their own Congressman should be thrown out. Based upon this, I wouldn’t be surprised if more incumbents than usual get upset, but that might not necessarily help the Democrats over Republicans. In addition, more people see the Republicans as being more responsible for gridlock, in contrast to a common false media narrative of treating each party as being equally responsible. Maybe they will surprise the pundits and throw the Republicans out.
Another factor influencing whether predictions based upon the fundamentals must occur is that any competent Democratic strategist is aware of every point here, and the party is doing far more than they did in 2010 to try to change this. They are working to increase turnout among Democratic voters this year. They have a technological edge both in regards to get out the vote efforts and fund raising. It even appears that the same problems which are placing Republicans at a disadvantage with younger voters is also impacting their ability to recruit young tech savvy political operatives. Besides using their technological advantages over Republicans in getting out the vote efforts, they can motivate Democratic voters with fear of the consequences of the Republicans taking control of the Senate. Tea Party extremism has led to an end to talk of a grand bargain. Democratic compromises on entitlement programs might have discouraged some voters on the left from turning out for Democrats.
I think Democrats will do better if they can successfully explain the advantages of their policies as opposed to Republican policies. Democratic economic policies turned around the economic collapse caused by Republican economic policies, even if the Republicans have managed to slow recovery with their obstructionist moves, decided upon from the start of Obama’s term. The deficit rolled up by George Bush has dropped considerably since Obama took office. The CBO projects a deficit of $514 billion in 2014, representing three percent of the Gross Domestic Product. This is near the average level for the past forty years, and a vast improvement from 2009 when the deficit was at 10.1 percent of GDP.
Despite early IT problems, which the Obama administration does deserve criticism for, the Affordable Care Act has turned into a tremendous success on a policy level, both in terms of health care reform and its benefits for the economy. Both the Medicare Advantage plans under George Bush and the original Medicare program had early implementation problems which took a couple of years to solve. Of course Republicans will continue to spread unsubstantiated scare stories and it is possible Obama might never received the credit he deserves. Health care premiums will be remain high on the individual market as they were high before Obamacare. Insurance companies will continue to use restricted panels of physicians and hospitals as they did before Obamacare, leaving room for Republicans to blame the Affordable Care Act for problems unrelated to the law.
Other factors could come into play. The Tea Party might oust electable Republicans and replace them with extremist candidates which the Democrats can more easily beat. While doubtful, the Tea Party might force Congressional Republicans into a situation analogous to the government shut-down before the election which reduces public support for Republicans. While it is doubtful it will really alter that many votes, even the changes in the late night comedians could help the Democrats over the Republicans.
The easy prediction is now that the Republicans will keep control of the House and control of the Senate is up for grabs. Depending upon whether the factors discussed above alter the usual fundamentals, we still might wind up seeing the pundits talking about all the reasons they knew we would have a different outcome after the results are known.