By Michael Barone
With black and Hispanic support clustered by district, Democrats in 2014 will have a hard time retaking the House.
Psephologists—the fancy word for election analysts—like to talk about change and transformation. One party or the other, they say, is on the verge of forging an enduring national majority. One party or the other is doomed.
What I have come to see in my number crunching is not change and transformation, but continuity. Three presidents in a row have been re-elected with 49%, 51% and 51% of the vote. Over the past two decades, Democrats won four of six presidential elections and won a popular-vote plurality in a fifth. But starting in 1994, Republicans won a majority in the House of Representatives in eight of the 10 congressional elections.
That is not the result of massive ticket-splitting, as in the years from 1968 to 1988, when many Southern whites and others voted Republican for president and for Democrats in the House. On the contrary, the number of congressional districts electing a House member for one party while voting for the presidential nominee of the other declined to 26 in 2012, from 59 in 2004, and from 103 in 1992.
In fact, over the past 20 years the popular vote for House of Representatives has been a good proxy for support of the president and his party. And over most of these two decades the popular vote for the House has been fairly stable. In six of the 10 congressional elections starting in 1994, including 2012, Republicans received between 48% and 51% of the House popular vote and Democrats received between 46% and 49%.
The parties have broken out beyond these narrow bands twice during this period, in each case when the other party held the White House. The Democratic breakouts came in 2006 and 2008 and were most likely responses to apparently catastrophic developments—an increasingly violent quagmire in Iraq in 2006, the financial crisis and sharp economic downturn in 2008.
These developments, plus the shrewd sponsorship by then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel—as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman—of moderate candidates in conservative-leaning districts, enabled Democrats to win 53% of the House popular vote in 2006 and 54% in 2008.
The Republican breakouts were in 1994 and 2010. Neither was a reaction to catastrophe or to a sharp economic downturn. Republicans’ 52% of the House popular vote in both years came in response to unpopular expansions of the size and scope of government—gun control and Hillary Clinton‘s attempt at health-care reform in 1994, ObamaCare and the stimulus package in 2010.
My conclusion: Republicans were hurt when voters doubted their competence, Democrats when voters opposed their ideology.
In 2012, voters returned to the narrow band of support prevailing between 1996 and 2004. Republicans won a 234-201 majority in the House of Representatives, losing just eight seats from their 2010 total. Yet Democrats won the House popular vote by a 1% margin, 49%-48%.
How to explain this anomaly? Many liberals ascribe it to the redistricting that followed the 2010 Census. There is something to this, but not everything. Republicans did control redistricting in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida—all states carried by Barack Obama—where they used the process mainly to bolster the re-election prospects of incumbents. They also controlled redistricting in North Carolina, where they replaced a Democratic plan with a Republican plan that enabled them to win nine of 13 seats despite narrowly losing the popular vote for the House.
But Democrats offset these gains by controlling the redistricting process in Illinois and Maryland and, by gaming supposedly nonpartisan redistricting commissions in California and Arizona. Overall, redistricting helped the Republicans, but only marginally.
What helped the Republicans more than redistricting was the tendency of Democratic voters to be clustered in black, Hispanic and “gentry liberal” neighborhoods in major metropolitan areas. This clustering has produced huge majorities that have made many large and medium-size states safely Democratic at the presidential level. Barack Obama won 56% or more in 13 states and the District of Columbia with 179 electoral votes, leaving him only 91 votes short of a majority. Mitt Romney, in contrast, won 56% or more in states with only 125 electoral votes.
But clustering works against Democrats in the House. According to figures compiled by Polidata Inc. for National Journal and “The Almanac of American Politics” (of which I am a co-author), Mr. Obama won 80% or more of the vote in 27 congressional districts and between 70% and 79% in 34 more. Mr. Romney won 80% in only one district and between 70% and 79% in 18 more. That left enough Republican votes spread around in the other 355 districts to enable Mr. Romney to carry 226 congressional districts to Obama’s 209.
All of the Democrats’ House popular-vote margin came from the 36 black-dominated and 31 Hispanic-dominated districts. Democrats carried the popular vote in black-dominated districts 80%-17% in 2012. They made significant gains in Hispanic-dominated districts, which George W. Bush lost by 11% but Mitt Romney lost by 32%. Mr. Bush’s “Family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande” is a more attractive message than Mr. Romney’s “self-deportation.”
Still, the House popular vote in the large majority of districts—368 in 2012, 369 in 2004—not dominated by blacks or Hispanics was almost the same in those two years. Republican candidates carried such districts 53%-44% in 2004 and 52%-46% in 2012.
The Obama campaign’s success in expanding minority turnout produced big gains at the presidential level. It did little for congressional Democrats—who won all black-dominated districts in 2004 and 2012, all but four Hispanic-dominated districts in 2004 and all but two in 2012. But Republicans increased their margin in other districts to 232-136 in 2012, from 228-141 in 2004.
All of this analysis points to a robust competition between the two parties over the past two decades, with no permanent winners or losers and no emerging natural majority for either party.
Neither party is doomed; both face challenges. Republicans have a clear problem with Hispanic voters, and many Republicans, including several with presidential aspirations, are addressing it by supporting immigration reform. House Republicans, only two of them from Hispanic-dominated districts, seem less interested.
Democrats have a clear problem with clustering. They cannot expect to improve on their performance with black voters in the two Obama elections, and they need to expand their appeal beyond their clusters of support to win congressional majorities. That may be difficult since their party tends to be defined, as it was not in the breakout years of 2006 and 2008, by a liberal incumbent president.
Republicans are trying to do something about their problems. Democrats, with their man in the White House, seem more complacent. But both parties have reason to feel insecure.
Michael Barone is senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of “The Almanac of American Politics.”