Democratic House performance

Did Democrats underperform in 2008 House elections?

By Thomas Schaller

Published November 10, 2008 2:53PM (EST)

Though there are a few seats still in dispute, it looks like the Democrats will win 25 new U.S. House seats, and lose three, for a net gain of 22 seats and an expected total of 257 seats for Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Added to the 31 net seat gains in 2006, that is more than 50 seats gained by the Democrats in the past two cycles.

But, given Obama's national showing, was the 2008 House performance better or worse than expected? Columbia University political scientist Andrew Gelman weighs in authoritatively to say that the underperformance meme is a "myth":

There's an idea going around that the Democrats turned in a disappointing performance in Congressional races this year. For example, a politically-minded friend of mine of the liberal persuasion wrote: "The election was good news, although the Democrats did not do quite as well in the Senate and House as I expected. Obama did not have very long coattails -- given how anti-Republican Americans are these days."

Some of the pros say this too; for example, Charlie Cook writes, "given the strength of the top of the ticket nationally, one might have thought that the victory would have been more vertically integrated. ... what happened down-ballot was not proportional to what happened at the top."

And Mickey Kaus attributes this to moderate ticket-splitters who, expecting that Obama would win, decided to support Republicans in Congress: "swing voters compensated for the bold, hopeful risk they took on Obama (including for overcoming any race prejudice) by gravitating back toward Republicans in their local Senate and House races."

The only trouble with this theory is that it's not supported by the data. Obama won 53% of the two-party vote, congressional Democrats averaged 56%. The average swing of 5.7% from Democratic congressional candidates in 2004 to Dems in 2008 was actually greater than the popular vote swing of 4.5% from Kerry to Obama. (Emphasis in original)

Another way to look at the situation is this: Heading into the 2006 midterms the Republicans held 231 seats and the Democrats won 31 of them, or about 13 percent. This year the GOP held 200 seats going in and the Democrats captured 22 of them, or 11 percent. Thus while 2008 may seem like a dropoff, as you winnow down a minority the remaining seats by definition tend to be harder to win because the incumbents are stronger and, relatedly, the districts tend to be safer, as a result of either electoral demography or strategic gerrymandering.

It's probably safe to say that the DCCC performed about the same this cycle under Rep. Chris Van Hollen as it did two years ago under Rep. Rahm Emanuel.

Update: Van Hollen will stay on to run the D-Trip's efforts in 2010, which almost certainly promises to be a tougher cycle for Democrats because (a) Bush is gone; (b) the Democrats will be running as the unified government control party; and (c) again, it's hard to win as the minority narrows. That said, if the Dems netted 10 seats in 2010 that would be an amazing achievement.

Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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