The Continued GOP Majority?: Prospects look good for Republicans in ’04

Last year, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira released their new book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, which argues that demographic changes over the past decade are moving the Democrats to majority status—and destining Republicans to suffer in elections. Well, a crazy thing happened on the way to this Democratic fair—the 2002 elections.

It seems obvious, but the key to understanding partisan voting trends and political dynamics is to look at election returns—who votes and how they vote. Analysis should focus not on who might possibly vote, but on what happens on election day. Many political commentators discuss partisan trends without giving due weight to “real” returns.

An examination of the 2002 election results shows the national Republican vote in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate races and in governors’ races exceeding the Democratic vote by approximately 5 percentage points. And in each type of race—House, Senate, gubernatorial—Republican candidates won more than 49 percent of the votes cast, breaking the 49 percent barrier for the first time since 1994—something the Democrats have not done since 1992. Many pundits have argued that Republicans fared well and Democrats poorly because of two issues—terrorism and a possible war in Iraq. Although terrorism was a significant issue, the dominant issue for voters was the economy. In both Democratic and Republican pre- and postelection polling, the number one issue was the economy—and the American voting public trusted Republicans over Democrats more on this issue by seven points! It wasn’t terrorism that decided the 2002 elections; it was the economy.

Defying Demography

Although Judis and Teixeira point out interesting demographic trends that anyone in politics, including Republicans, should be cognizant of, their conclusion runs astray. Yes, if Republicans do not expand their constituency, they will suffer at the ballot box, but the same can be said for Democrats. For instance, if Democrats continue to lose ground among union households, white males, and stay-at-home moms, they will forever be the minority party. This fact underlines two fundamental flaws of The Emerging Democratic Majority.

First, its authors see demographics as dynamic but see political parties and candidates as static. Of course demographics and societal trends control much of the destiny of politics, but as we have seen over the past 200 years, political parties adapt and change fairly often. The Democratic party of the late 1800s, for instance, was very different from the party today. A perfect example of adapting to changing demographics is the Republican ability to garner Latino votes in recent elections.

Latinos were once a solid part of the Democratic base. In 2002 Republican candidates hoped to garner 20-25 percent of their votes. According to Democratic pollsters, Republicans won some 39 percent of the Latino vote on average nationally. And in Colorado and Florida, Republican governors won more than 50 percent of the non-Cuban Latino vote. If Republicans continue to do this well, then even with the tremendous growth expected among Latinos, Republicans are, at worst, in a neutral place.

Second, The Emerging Democratic Majority is based primarily on presidential election results. The authors use the 1992, 1996, and 2000 elections in arguing that these results reflect the Democratic base, without stating that 1992 was more about dissatisfaction with the economy and less about voters turning from one party to another. As the success of Republicans in the 1994 midterm elections demonstrated, the 1992 election was not about the rising preeminence of the Democratic Party. And in 1996 a popular incumbent president was running for reelection in a time of relative prosperity.

Democrats have not captured more than 50 percent in a presidential race in 27 years—the last time being Jimmy Carter’s narrow 1976 victory over then President Gerald Ford in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. And Democrats have not captured a significant majority share (more than 51 percent) of the presidential vote in 39 years—when Lyndon Johnson ran for reelection in 1964 against Barry Goldwater.

The more telling races to examine for political trends are not the “one big” race run every four years, but the 435 congressional races run every two years and the nearly 7,400 state legislative races run every two or four years. And these results show quite a different “emerging majority.”

Today, for the first time since 1946, Republicans hold a majority of state legislative seats. In the past 12 years, while Democrats have supposedly been gaining political strength and “emerging” as a majority according to Teixeira and Judis, Democrats’ share of state legislative seats has fallen from 61 percent to just 49 percent.

By the Numbers

Congressional races over the past 10 years reveal a similar pattern. Republicans have held the House of Representatives for the longest sustained period since the 1920s, and their prospects for the future remain bright.

In 2002 Republican congressional candidates won more than 54 percent of the vote in 214 districts, while Democratic and Independent candidates carried more than 54 percent in 191 districts. The remaining 30 districts were more competitive, with no party winning more than 54 percent of the vote. In the 214 Republican districts, four, mainly in the Northeast, gave Democrat Al Gore more than 58 percent of the presidential vote in 2000. In the 191 Democratic districts, five, mainly in the South, gave George Bush more than 58 percent of the vote.

Let’s assume for argument’s sake that each party ultimately switches these seats—giving Republicans an additional net one district. So the breakdown becomes a Republican advantage of 215 to 190. How do the 30 fairly competitive districts break down? In eight districts, President Bush received more than 58 percent of the vote; in one, Al Gore received more than 58 percent of the vote. Let’s allocate those again, leaving 21 highly competitive districts, and a new breakdown of 223 likely Republican seats and 191 likely Democratic seats. Absent a major economic or foreign crisis, the prospect of Democrats recapturing a significant majority in Congress seems dim.

A word of caution: demographics and politics are each dynamic. The ability of one party to seize a stable majority is uncertain—as evidenced by the runoff election in Louisiana about a month after last November’s election, when Democratic incumbent Senator Mary Landrieu defeated her GOP opponent, running against the overall 2002 Republican tide. That election, too, emphasizes the axiom that, in many cases, candidates and campaigns do matter, in spite of long-term demographic change. But the majority possession arrow now points to the Republicans, and the 2004 election up and down the ballot should help clarify things.