Electoral landslides for dummies

As this article is being written, Election Day is 14 weeks away. The predominant chatter among political pundits is not whether there will be Republican gains, but the extent of those gains, and whether those gains can produce a Republican wave large enough to enable them to retake the House, the Senate, or both houses of Congress (which the Republicans did in 1994 and the Democrats did in 2006). However, speculation about the ultimate outcome can lead to unrealistic hopes. We would therefore like to use the 1994 landslide (and its effect on the composition of the U.S. Senate) to assess the extent to which conditions present in 1994 can be replicated in this year’s elections.

1994: That Was Then

While the 1994 GOP landslide resulted in a Republican pickup of 8 Senate seats (and control of that chamber for the first time since 1986), several pieces of the electoral puzzle had to come together. In fact, the Republican wave actually originated in November 1992 with the election of Bill Clinton. The immediate effect of that election was the creation of two Senate vacancies due to the resignations of Al Gore (D-Tennessee) and Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas) to become President Clinton’s Vice President and Treasury Secretary, respectively.

The GOP caught another lucky break when in early 1994, David Boren (D-Oklahoma) resigned his Senate seat to accept a position as president of the University of Oklahoma.  Though these three vacancies (the Boren, Gore, and Bentsen seats) themselves made the difference in terms of Senate control, the Republicans’ good fortune did not stop there. It also didn’t hurt that four more Democratic incumbents decided to retire that year. Finally, the Democrats’ luck ran out: the Democratic landslide class of 1958 was re-elected every six years due to a series of favorable events (the 1964 LBJ landslide, a weak economy in 1970 in Nixon’s first term, Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976, 11% unemployment in 1982 during Reagan’s first term, and a lack of Republican focus on congressional races in 1988 while instead focusing on George H.W. Bush’s election). The fact that this “landslide class” of Senators was overwhelmingly (20-13) Democratic gave the Republicans plenty of potential targets, and the Gore/Bentsen/Boren resignations boosted that total even further to 22 Democrats and 13 Republicans.

All of the factors listed above helped the Republicans on election day: the 51-45% vote for Republican Senate candidates (52-45% for Republican House candidates) enabled them to sweep to victory by capturing all open Democratic seats and by defeating two incumbent Democratic senators. However, the landslide nature of this election enabled the GOP to re-elect all of their incumbents while simultaneously holding onto the three open GOP seats.

While the Republicans’ “perfect storm” gave them control of the Senate, landslides also have two side effects. First, there are always the “ones who got away”; as political analyst Charlie Cook says  “…almost always some candidates who looked dead somehow survive and others who were deemed safe get sucked down in the undertow. That’s the nature of these beasts…” – as impressive as this “perfect storm” was for the GOP, there were still five incumbent Democratic senators who were re-elected with less than 55%.

Second, and equally as important, landslides also have unforeseen side effects. In addition to the “ones who got away”, landslides tend to sweep in weaker candidates, who then have a tough time getting re-elected under more normal circumstances. This, in fact, is what happened with the 1994 freshman Senate class (and, arguably, the 1980 Republican freshman class as well): four of these “landslide freshmen” were defeated in 2000, and their defeats ultimately contributed to a deadlocked 50-50 Senate that George W. Bush had to face after he was inaugurated in 2001.

2010: This Is Now

The 1994 GOP landslide happened because of voter sentiment and a unique set of favorable circumstances. Can those circumstances repeat themselves this year ?

Presidential election creating vacancies – In this instance, history has repeated itself and then some; not only were both President Obama and Vice President Biden incumbent senators, but several of their cabinet picks (Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and Ken Salazar as Secretary of Interior) were senators as well;

Retirements – In 1994, the lions’ share of retirements were on the Democratic side of the aisle. While the retirement of four Democratic senators (Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Evan Bayh in Indiana, Byron Dorgan in North Dakota, and the primary defeat of Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania) would seem to help Republican chances, the retirement of six Republican senatirs (plus a Republican primary defeat) make the picture less favorable to the Republicans this year;

Special circumstances – In 1994, Republicans benefitted from the resignation of David Boren of Oklahoma to take a university president’s job. While there were no such resignations in this election cycle, the death of  two veteran Democratic senators (Teddy Kennedy of Massachusetts and Robert Byrd of West Virginia) has created additional open seat opprtunities, and the Massachusetts seat has already been captured by the Republicans in a major upset this past January;

A large Democratic Senate class up for election –The 1994 elections were for an overwhelmingly (22-13) Democratic Senate class. Though there is an abnormally large class of 37 senators up for election this year, Republicans don’t have as many targets, since they hold 19 of those 37 seats. That means that even in a perfect election cycle, there are four less Democratic targets than there were in 1994;

Incumbent losses – The defeat of two incumbent Democratic Senators in 1994 was one of several factors which helped the Republicans recapture the Senate. This year, the seat of Blanche Lincoln (D-Arkansas) appears to be a close to guaranteed Republican pickup, and Republicans still hope to topple (four term incumbent) Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada;

The wildcards – In a “perfect night” for the Republicans, the factors listed above  would mean that holding on to all 12 GOP incumbents, plus all seven open GOP held seats, would result in a Senate with 52 Republicans. However, we don’t believe that Republicans can capture Hillary Clinton’s senate seat, because both Republicans and Conservatives are fielding separate candidates in heavily Democratic New York. Similarly, Democrats have strong candidates in open seat contests in Connecticut and West Virginia who have consistently polled above 50%. And in Illinois, Kentucky, and Nevada, Republican nominees have committed early blunders that may or may not come back to haunt them in November. Therefore, we see a Senate made up of 46-49 Republicans. The only way to get to a majority is to expand the playing field by defeating more Democratic incumbents. About the only places where that is possible are in more liberal states like California, Washington, and Wisconsin, where incumbent Democrats (who, incidentally, were all elected in 1992) are currently running neck and neck against their GOP opponents.

The roadmap to a 51 GOP Senate

For the Republicans to have a chance of retaking the Senate (since Vice-President Biden can cast the tie breaking vote, “retaking the Senate” means a Republican delegation of 51 members), all of the following have to happen: (1) hold onto all 12 GOP incumbents (including Louisiana’s David Vitter) and 7 GOP open seats, (2) capture enough open Democratic seats and/or defeat enough incumbents to get to 51 senators. Where will those pickups need to occur ? Below is our list of those seats (in ascending order of difficulty), as well as the composite of poll results for the last 28 days:

(1)    North Dakota – Republican lead of 69-22% (open seat)

(2)    Arkansas – Republican lead of 58-33%

(3)    Indiana – Republican lead of 51-30% (open seat)

(4)    Delaware – Republican lead of 44-38% (open seat)

(5)  Colorado – (contested primaries on both sides are on August 10 – we will publish poll results then for this open seat)

(5)  Pennsylvania – Republican lead of 44-40% (open seat)

The next list of seats will determine control of the Senate. Republicans must capture at least four of these five seats:

(1)    Nevada – Democratic lead of 45-43%

(2)    Illinois – Democratic lead of 40-39% (open seat)

(3)    Washington – Republican lead of 46-45%

(4)    Wisconsin – Democratic lead of 47-42%

(5)    California – Democratic lead of 47-44%

The last list of seats should theoretically be pickup opportunities for the GOP, but a combination of weak GOP candidates and/or strong Democratic candidates means we aren’t currently counting on winning any of these seats:

(1)    West Virginia – Democratic lead of 51-35% (open seat)

(2)    Connecticut – Democratic lead of 54-36% (open seat)

(3)    New York (Hillary Clinton’s seat) – Democratic lead of 51-28% (open seat)

A final note needs to be added: a lot can still happen. 23 states still have not held their primaries. Scandals could abruptly change the context of the race in an instant, like a plagiarism scandal recently did in the Colorado Governor’s race. And external events (oil spills, foreign policy crises, the economy) can either bolster or savage Democrats’ chances.

John is a political consultant and blogger with JMC Enterprises with expertise in poll sample development and analysis, development of targeted voter files for phone canvassing or mail outs, campaign strategy and demographic consulting, among other things. See his site at WinWithJMC.com for more information.

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