Monday, May 01, 2006

What the mid-term elections will tell us

This article by University of Chicago doctorial candidate Jay Cost in the Wall Street Journal has been sitting on my desk for over a week and in my mind it underscores the need for an alternative voice within the Republican Party. Cost believes it likely that the Republicans will keep control of the Congress this November.

At best, many facts of importance, like 2004's 98.8% incumbent retention rate or 2006's incredibly low 4.6% incumbent retirement rate, are mentioned only to be unceremoniously dismissed. This is the sign of poor argumentation. It is not enough to proffer one's case by rallying the supporting facts. One must also handle the opposing facts.

One of these ignored items has to do with the Senate. It is, according to most, out of the Democrats' grasp. I strongly agree with this estimation. For the Democrats to take the Senate, they would have to defeat incumbents in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Montana, Missouri and Rhode Island; win the open seat in Tennessee; and hold seats against strong challengers in Minnesota, Maryland, New Jersey and Washington. This amounts to a sweep of all 10 of National Journal's 10 most vulnerable races. Most would thus admit that the Senate is not on the table; those who make no such admission usually grow silent when asked to explain why they refuse.

The consensus on the Senate is actually a major problem for the consensus on the House. Historically speaking, the House switches only when the Senate switches. In other words, the improbability of a Democratic capture of the Senate is a sign that a capture of the House is improbable. Consider the following.

The 17th Amendment, which mandates the direct election of senators, took effect prior to the 1914 election. Since then, the Senate has changed hands 10 times due to the biannual congressional election. The House, on the other hand, has changed hands only six times due to the biannual congressional election. (A seventh switch occurred in the middle of the 72nd Congress. The 1930 elections left the GOP with a slim majority. However, 14 representatives-elect died before the 72nd Congress convened, and the Democrats won enough of the subsequent special elections to take the House. This capture was "ratified" in the 1932 elections, which would have delivered Congress to the Democrats even if this tragedy had not occurred. So, let us henceforth identify 1932 as the seventh time that the House has switched since 1918.)

Of these seven times the House has switched, the Senate has also switched. Not only does the Senate switch more frequently, it always switches with the House. A switch in the Senate, therefore, seems to be a necessary, but insufficient, condition for a switch in the House. Conversely, a switch in the House is a sufficient, but not necessary, condition for a switch in the Senate. Thus, historically speaking, three scenarios are possible: both House and Senate stay the same, the Senate alone changes, or both the House and the Senate change.

Is this simply historical coincidence, or is a causal logic driving the correlation? A pattern that holds over 46 observations without exception is probably not random. Most important, however, is that this sort of pattern coheres with what we already know about Senate and House elections--namely, House elections are much less susceptible to national trends than Senate elections. This is the case for several reasons.

First, senators lack the ability to draw district lines to minimize opposing partisans. Second, Senate challengers tend to be more qualified and better funded than House challenges. Third, these challengers can use campaign resources more efficiently. Many House challengers cannot efficiently spend money on television advertisements because it is wasted on voters in other districts; however, with Senate elections, there are efficient ad markets. Fourth, senators are less able to cultivate close relationships with constituents--they lack the requisite geographical proximity. Fifth, senators are much more visible to the public; whereas House members can operate in the Capitol without much scrutiny, constituents tend to be more aware of their senators' activities.

Thus, Senate elections are contests where the partisan division is more equal, the average voter has a more balanced view of the candidates, and he has more information about the issues in the race. Like House races, they tend to be referendums on incumbents; Senate incumbents are simply less favored. It is thus no surprise that senators' re-election rate is consistently lower than representatives'. It also no surprise that control of the Senate is more susceptible to change. If individual senators face enhanced competition, so does their partisan caucus.

Why, then, does the Senate always switch when the House does? National political moods do not usually translate into changes in party control in the House. The reason for this is that individual members of the House are fairly invulnerable to that mood. However, they are not perfectly invulnerable. If the mood is sufficiently strong or sufficiently directed against one party, the House incumbency advantage is not enough. Since the House incumbency advantage is greater than the Senate advantage, we should expect the Senate to switch when the House switches. If the mood is strong enough to change the House, it will be strong enough to change the Senate. On the flip side, we can expect relatively milder political moods to change the more competitive Senate, but not the House.
Cost’s premise passes the initial sniff test and it my mind, underscores the larger issue that there is no organized, credible voice for both secularism and lassie faire within the Republican Party. That needs to change, or Objectivists will have to simply get used to living under a governing party that is animated by evangelical Christianity and altruism. Yet again, the larger threat to freedom comes from the right.

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