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.

All this is to say that Republicans will have a greater influence in map-making than any time in the modern history of redistricting. Noteworthy, though, is that this will be the first time that there will be a Democratic Justice Department in place for redistricting since Kennedy in 1961-62.

Having just picked up 63 seats, that restrains the GOP's ability to pick up new seats in many states. Republicans are more likely to focus their redistricting efforts on shoring up the newly won seats, solidifying their hold rather than swinging for the fences to grab new seats. With exotic new members working against the GOP and redistricting working against Democrats, it's not hard to imagine these off-setting forces resulting in a more-normal House election.

While the outcome in the Senate is hardly a foregone conclusion, the odds are stacked against Democrats. Republicans need to pick up four seats to take the majority. Having picked up six seats in 2006, Democrats have 23 seats at risk in 2012, compared to only 10 for the GOP.

At this point, the Cook Political Report puts six Democratic seats in the Toss Up category, three more in Lean Democratic, and four more in Likely Democratic, the column that signifies a race that is not competitive now, but which could become competitive later.

Republicans have just two seats that are Toss Ups, none in the Lean Republican category, and three are in the Likely Republican. So, right now there are 13 Democratic seats that could be in danger, compared to just five Republican seats. The 2014 picture is almost as bad for Democrats. They will have 20 seats up compared to just 13 for the GOP. Basically, if the GOP doesn't pick up the Senate in 2012 or 2014, they might as well shut the headquarters down and start a new party.

History is a good omen for President Obama. Over the past 100 years, President Carter is the only president who took the job over from the opposing party and lost reelection.

Job approval ratings are highly accurate measures of presidential elections but don't become particularly relevant until about a year out. At the end of the Februarys before their reelection years, Reagan's job approval rating in Gallup tracking was just 40 percent; George H.W. Bush was enjoying a post-Gulf War 80 percent; Bill Clinton's was 42 percent; and George W. Bush's approval rating was 57 percent.

Obama's 47 percent approval rating at the end of February is pretty much the tipping point. Better approval ratings bring victories and lower ones losses. But that's a long time from now.

This article appeared in the Tuesday, March 1, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily.

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