The Big Forces at Play in 2012

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President Obama campaigns in Iowa in 2008. credit: TushyD/Flickr

Even though political forecasts made 20 months before an election can be a dubious venture, making those forecasts provides benchmarks of what was thought at a given point in time, and allows us to watch the evolution of an election cycle. That's a fancy way of saying: "This is what was thought at this point during the cycle."

Obviously, politics is a dynamic process and circumstances, issues, and events will change the trajectory of any election cycle. We don't know what the political environment, the economy, or unemployment will be like in November 2012, or what foreign policy events or other incidents will come into play.

Considering the fact that we've seen three consecutive wave elections in the House, it would be easy to assume that a fourth would be a distinct possibility. Why would voters suddenly become placated in 2012 after having been so volatile in 2006, 2008, and 2010?

Well, my hunch at this point is that there are some potentially important factors helping--and hurting--each party that could offset things and result in a single-digit net change of seats and mark 2012 as more of a status quo election in the House.

Democrats need a 25-seat gain to recapture control of the House, which currently stands at 241 Republicans and 192 Democrats with 2 vacancies (for the seats of former Reps. Jane Harman, D-Calif., and Chris Lee, R-N.Y.). Twenty-five seats is not an astronomically high number.

In fact, two of the last three elections have seen net changes of more than 25 seats. Then again, that has only happened eight times in the last half century and it has usually happened during midterm elections.

Most importantly, even when presidents have been reelected in landslides, their coattails have been very short. When Presidents Nixon and Reagan cruised in their reelection bids in 1972 and 1984, Republicans only picked up 12 and 14 seats, respectively. The last time a president won reelection and had his party pick up at least 25 seats was in 1964, but of course that wasn't exactly a reelection as Johnson had assumed the presidency after the assassination of President Kennedy.

On the one hand, it is reasonable to assume that there would be some losses on the Republican side after a 63-seat gain by them last year.

After wave elections, when parties pick up seats in districts where they wouldn't normally win, they tend to be overexposed in the next election, when the same dynamics are not in place. There are also some pretty out-of-the mainstream Republican freshmen in Congress now who could become low-hanging fruit for Democratic pickups.

On the other hand, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Republicans now entirely control the redistricting process in states with 202 out of the 435 congressional districts. Democrats will run the show in states with 47 districts; 87 more districts are in states where there is divided control of the process, 92 districts have commissions draw the map, and the remainder are single-district states where redistricting is not necessary.

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Charlie Cook is editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report and a political analyst for National Journal.

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