Saturday, October 14, 2006

Tidal wave election coming up? - Paul Krugman says maybe

At the beginning of August the political handicapper Charlie Cook, who is widely regarded (in the words of David Broder of the Washington Post) as "perhaps the best non-partisan tracker of congressional races," announced that he could see early signs of a possible "tidal wave" election in November. [See "Tidal wave election" coming up? (Charlie Cook)]

Of course, Cook wasn't willing to offer firm predictions. A net loss of 15 Republican seats would be enough to end Republican control of the House, and that might not seem like much. But increasingly precise gerrymandering has made incumbents of either party extremely difficult to dislodge, so only a tiny proportion of seats in the House seemed to be in play. And when one took into account the Republicans' other built-in advantages, even a Democratic majority of the overall popular vote in November would be insufficient to break the Republicans' hold on the House of Representatives.

Nevertheless, such an outcome was beginning to look plausible to Cook, since he found indications of gathering momentum in the Republicans' loss of support:
In terms of the political climate, the facts are clear. All of the traditional diagnostic indicators in major national polls taken in the past 10 days show numbers consistent with an electoral rout. [....]
In the House, where Democrats need a 15-seat gain to win a majority, Republicans have 15 seats that the Cook Political Report currently rates as tossups. No Democratic seats remain in that column. [....]
In a very large tidal wave election, as this one appears to be, it would not be unusual to see all tossups go to one party, along with a few out of the leaning column as well. Republicans might lose their House majority just in the seats in which they are behind or in which their edge is within a poll's margin of error.
At that point, however, all this still looked iffy. And the chances that the Republicans might lose control of the Senate seemed pretty slim.

=> A little over two months later, prospects seem to have gotten even worse for the Republicans. According to just about all the polls, the erosion in their support has continued. The Republican blogger John Hinderaker, surveying a nation-wide compilation of pre-election polls at Real Clear Politics, describes the omens as "grim." To quote his summary, which is only slightly exaggerated:
It's a sea of blue, with the Democratic candidate leading in just about every race for every office, nationwide. The polls can't all be screwy, and if this batch are anywhere near right, they foretell a rout of astonishing proportions. Maybe that's what the voters want; the Republicans have three weeks remaining to focus Americans on the serious issues at stake in the election.
Not only does it now seem quite possible that the Republicans will lose control of the House, it is also beginning to look plausible that they might lose the Senate, too--but, in both cases, just barely.

=> Or maybe not. Having done the numbers, Paul Krugman suggests a more daring all-or-nothing scenario.

Given the Republicans' built-in advantages, they might still be able to hold on to the House by the skin of their teeth, even in the face of a significant Democratic majority in the nation-wise popular vote. The Democratic tidal wave would have to clear a formidable flood wall to have a real effect, and it might not quite manage do it. However, if the Democrats do manage to clear that flood wall even slightly, then there is a good chance that they could win a big House majority, not a small one.

Or as Krugman puts it:
The conventional wisdom says that the Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives next month, but only by a small margin. I’ve been looking at the numbers, however, and I believe this conventional wisdom is almost all wrong.

Here’s what’s happening: a huge Democratic storm surge is heading toward a high Republican levee. It’s still possible that the surge won’t overtop the levee — that is, the Democrats could fail by a small margin to take control of Congress. But if the surge does go over the top, the flooding will almost surely reach well inland — that is, if the Democrats win, they’ll probably win big. [....]

The storm may yet weaken. [....] But the best guess is that the permanent Republican majority will end in a little over three weeks.
Obviously, I can't vouch for the accuracy of Krugman's statistical analyses. But from everything I do know, and speaking from my entirely non-expert perspective on such matters, his prognosis sounds quite plausible to me.

=> How much would the difference between Krugman's scenario and the prevailing scenario matter? Possibly a lot.

Over the past decade the Republicans have effectively rewritten the House rules in a way that allows the majority to shut out the majority almost completely, so that a switch in the overall balance of seats could have dramatic effects. In principle, this could be true even if the Democrats wind up with a majority of one or two seats. They would then control the committee chairmanships, the power to issue subpoenas for investigations, and the power to control which legislative proposals come to a vote by the full House--all of which would also give them significant leverage over how political issues get reported by the news media and perceived by the electorate. And once the possibility opens up for Congressional investigations into accumulated corruption, sleaze, illegality, mismanagement, corporate welfare, and other malfeasance from the past 6 years, the results should resemble shooting fish in a barrel.

The complicating factor is that the House Republicans have also achieved a historically unprecedented degree of party discipline--to the extent that they sometimes resemble a parliamentary party more than anything in previous American experience--whereas the Democrats are unlikely to display such tight party discipline. As a result, if there is a very slight Democratic majority, there is a good chance that it will come unglued pretty easily and frequently. On the other hand, if the Democrats have a comfortable majority, they can afford to lose a few votes on particular issues without losing control of the overall agenda. And this would probably increase the chances that they might be able to get something done--not necessarily in terms of constructive legislation in the short run, since they will still face Bush/Cheney control of the White House and possibly continued Republican control of the Senate, but at least in terms of reshaping the political agenda for 2008 and beginning to impose some degree of oversight and accountability on the executive branch.

=> Three weeks is still a long time in politics, so all this remains speculative. But it does begin to look possible that the November elections will, at least, bring an end to monolithic one-party control of the national government.

This would be a Very Good Thing. To a remarkable extent, this one-party Republican monopoly has involved a collapse of the whole structure of checks and balances, informal as well as formal, that traditionally characterized the American political system. It turned out that this structure was much more precarious than most of us imagined. The result has given us six years of shamelessly irresponsible and almost unchecked misgovernment by a coalition of big business and the Republican far right, along with an alarming erosion of constitutional restraints on the arbitrary exercise of executive power.. It's clear that breaking this one-party monopoly is an essential first step toward beginning to repair the damage and seriously address some of the larger pathologies our whole political system.

Only a first step, and no one should have any illusions about how much these elections can solve by themselves, but an absolutely necessary first step. So I hope the more optimistic alternative in Krugman's analysis turns out to be on target.

--Jeff Weintraub
====================
New York Times
October 13, 2006

OP-ED COLUMNIST
Will the Levee Break?
By Paul Krugman

The conventional wisdom says that the Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives next month, but only by a small margin. I’ve been looking at the numbers, however, and I believe this conventional wisdom is almost all wrong.

Here’s what’s happening: a huge Democratic storm surge is heading toward a high Republican levee. It’s still possible that the surge won’t overtop the levee — that is, the Democrats could fail by a small margin to take control of Congress. But if the surge does go over the top, the flooding will almost surely reach well inland — that is, if the Democrats win, they’ll probably win big.

Let’s talk about Congressional arithmetic.

Unless the Bush administration is keeping Osama bin Laden in a freezer somewhere, a majority of Americans will vote Democratic this year. If Congressional seats were allocated in proportion to popular votes, a Democratic House would be a done deal. But they aren’t, and the way our electoral system works, combined with the way ethnic groups are distributed, still gives the Republicans some hope of holding on.

The key point is that African-Americans, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, are highly concentrated in a few districts. This means that in close elections many Democratic votes are, as political analysts say, wasted — they simply add to huge majorities in a small number of districts, while the more widely spread Republican vote allows the G.O.P. to win by narrower margins in a larger number of districts.

My back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that because of this “geographic gerrymander,” even a substantial turnaround in total Congressional votes — say, from the three-percentage-point Republican lead in 2004 to a five-point Democratic lead this year — would leave the House narrowly in Republican hands. It looks as if the Democrats need as much as a seven-point lead in the overall vote to take control.

No wonder, then, that until a few months ago many political analysts argued that the Republicans would control the House for the foreseeable future, because only a perfect political storm could overcome the G.O.P. structural advantage.

But what’s that howling sound? Every poll taken this month shows the Democrats with a double-digit lead in the generic ballot question, in which voters are asked which party they support in this election. The median Democratic lead is 14 points.

And here’s the thing: because there are many districts that the G.O.P. carried by only moderately large margins in recent elections, a large Democratic surge — one only a bit bigger than that needed to take the House at all — would sweep away many Republicans holding seats normally considered safe. If the actual vote is anything like what the polls now suggest, we’re talking about the Democrats holding a larger majority in the House than the Republicans have held at any point since their 1994 takeover.

So if the Democrats win, they’ll probably have a substantial majority. Whether they’ll be able to keep that majority is another question. But be prepared to wake up less than four weeks from now and learn that everything you’ve been told about American politics — liberalism is dead, whoever controls the South controls Washington, only Republicans know “the way to win” — is wrong. (Are we seeing the birth of a new New Deal coalition, in which the solid Northeast takes the place of the solid South?)

The storm may yet weaken. The Iowa Electronic Markets, in which people bet real money on election outcomes, still give Republicans a roughly 40 percent chance of keeping control of both houses of Congress. If that happens, will it mean that Republican control is permanent after all?

No. Bear in mind that the G.O.P. isn’t in trouble because of a string of bad luck. The problems that have caused Americans to turn on the party, from the disaster in Iraq to the botched response to Katrina, from the failed attempt to privatize Social Security to the sudden realization by many voters that the self-proclaimed champions of moral values are hypocrites, are deeply rooted in the whole nature of Republican governance. So even if this surge doesn’t overtop the levee, there will be another surge soon.

But the best guess is that the permanent Republican majority will end in a little over three weeks.

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