(To be followed tomorrow by three reasons they they might not.)
Will Republicans win back the House? Charlie Cook thinks it's a safe bet. David Brooks is doubtful. Larry Sabato's model predicts a 27-seat gain. Stu Rothenberg has yet to make a prediction. Gary Jacobson of UCLA wants to wait until he sees the candidates in each individual race. Ronald Brownstein is somewhere in between. In these great minds lay paradigms about politics, into which a voluminous amount of data is entered. From a macropolitical perspective, here are the three most compelling reasons why Republicans might pick up the House of Representatives:
1. History. By history, I don't mean that historical patterns are themselves motive forces -- that would be magical thinking. But there is a reason why presidents tend to lose seats during their first midterms, and it has everything to do with the rhythms of American politics. Presidents overpromise and underdeliver; the out party feels more put out and gets angrier; Republicans were walloped in the president elections of 1964 and 1992; Vietnam and the breaking of the Democratic consensus on race helped them win back seats in 1966. In 1994, Republicans benefited from a large number of retirements and open seats, as well as a president whose large initiatives seemed to be failing. A corollary here is demographics: the midterm electorate tends to be older and whiter; watch very closely the percentage of enthusiastic voters over 50 and you'll get a fair sense of what Democrats are going to face in the fall. As Brownstein notes, Obama's approval rating among older white voters is less than 40%. To watch: the correspondence between presidential approval and one's propensity to vote. The tighter the linkage, the worse it will be for Democrats.
2. The economy/anti-Washington sentiment. Even though voters blame George W. Bush for the state of the economy, they tend not to give Obama credit for preventing the complete collapse of the financial system. The interjection of health care certainly hurt the Democratic case that their interventions were a positive good. Bailouts, banks, stimulus package (not the popular, same thing called ARRA) all go into this category. It drags down the party in power. The White House expects positive job growth in April, and even though there is only a weak correlation between the direction of the unemployment rate and the vector of a midterm elections, perceptions harden early on (the amount of information available about the mechanics of the health care debate has poisoned the public to its consequences), and races are often lost before they begin. "I've never seen as much anti-Washington sentiment as there is now," Charlie Cook told me recently. Inside the Beltway, we can game out tactical scenarios all we want, but the frustration at the way Washington works -- certainly a perennial -- is brightly blooming. Incumbents bear the brunt of the blame.
3. Obama and Democratic overachievement. The 2008 election was anomalous in the sense that not only did the marginal seats go their way, a large number of seats that Democrats haven't held in eons were swept into the Democratic category by the party's superior get out the vote operations in traditionally non-Democratic states. Brownstein notes that Republicans never held more than 232 seats at the height of their recent majorities, while Democrats now hold in excess of 250. There are at least a dozen seats, maybe 15 to 20, in the Midwest, South and West that will revert back to their natural states simply in the absence of the 2008 turnout machine. Democratic under-enthusiasm, the high unemployment rate among the millenals and low turnout of minorities will redound to the benefit of Republicans. A corollary here is that ideological voting tends to trump demographic patterns in midterms.
Thumbnail photo credit: saturnism/flickr
Marc Ambinder is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.