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Election Day Calculus: Both Parties May Find Reason to Declare Victory

During midterm elections, disappointment for the president's party in November has been as reliable as disappointment for Boston Red Sox fans in October.

November 02, 1998|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

Probably the safest bet about Tuesday's election is that when it's over, both parties will find a reason to declare victory. Anything less would be a shock.

These days, politics without spin is like cable television without Monica. But that doesn't mean the rest of us couldn't use some yardsticks to help evaluate the competing claims.

History offers the best benchmarks. Though Democrats once thought they might win back the House of Representatives this year, precedent argued otherwise. Since the Civil War, the party holding the White House has gained House seats in a midterm election only once--in 1934, two years into Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Other than that, during midterms, disappointment for the president's party in November has been as reliable as disappointment for Boston Red Sox fans in October.

In this century, the president's party has lost an average of 32 seats in midterm elections. For elections six years into a president's tenure--the kind of six-year-itch election on tap this year--the average loss has been 38. Some Democrats say that's the standard against which to judge this year's outcome.

But Republicans argue that it's unreasonable to expect them to match the average six-year gain because they won so many marginal seats during President Clinton's first midterm in 1994, leaving fewer ripe for plucking now. That's a good point. When Republicans played 52 (seat) pick-up in 1994, they registered the largest gain for an opposition party in a first-term midterm since 1922. "You can't win seats if you already have them," says Gary Jacobson, an expert on congressional elections at UC San Diego.

That suggests that one test for Tuesday's election is whether the GOP can win enough seats to match this century's average gain for the opposition party in two midterms against the same president--62. That would require them to win 10 House seats Tuesday (to add to the 52 they won in 1994).

Another calculation points in the same direction. One reason midterm elections are so bad for the president's party is that during presidential years, the winner's coattails sweep into office candidates who are not strong enough to win on their own two years later.

In 11 of the last 14 presidential elections, the party winning the White House also has gained seats in the House. But on five of those 11 occasions, the party that lost the White House stormed back in the next midterm election to regain all the House seats it surrendered in the presidential year. By that measure, a reasonable goal for Republicans this year would be winning back the nine House seats they lost in 1996.

So both the two-election-average calculation and the taking-back-lost-ground standard suggest that Republicans will break even in the House if they win about 10 seats. Anything less would set off recriminations. Gains in the low teens would be acceptable but unremarkable, and Republicans can start patting themselves on the back if they get more than 15.

In the Senate, the president's party has also usually lost seats in midterm elections, but there have been more exceptions than in the House. That makes sense: Senators have deeper political roots than most House members and aren't as vulnerable to shifts in the national currents.

Six-year itch elections, though, are generally tough on the president's party in the Senate. That makes sense, too. Senators elected in the same year as a new president face their first reelection six years into that president's tenure. Some who benefited from a president's coattails in their initial victory won't be strong enough to survive without that boost. In 1986, for instance, six of the Republican senators swept into office with Ronald Reagan in 1980 were defeated (costing the GOP control of the Senate).

Several vulnerable Democrats fit that description this year--most prominently Illinois' Carol Moseley-Braun, Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, and California's Barbara Boxer. But Boxer has strengthened her position, and with Republican incumbents now shaky in New York and North Carolina, it appears unlikely that the GOP will gain the five seats it needs for a filibuster-proof Senate majority (much less the six that has been average for the party out of the White House in six-year-itch elections since 1918).

Democrats may think they've dodged a bullet if Republicans pick up anything fewer than five seats. But if Republicans gain even two seats, that would put them at their highest level in the Senate since 1922. So even a disappointing result for Republicans could still be a disheartening one for Democrats.

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