Who Will Control The House After '98?
A return to Democratic control is possible, but not likely
By Charlie Cook
WASHINGTON (May 30) -- As hard-fought as the battle for control of the House of Representatives was in 1996, it is difficult today to predict whether the House will really be in play next year. Republicans currently hold the narrowest majority either party has seen since 1955, at just 228 seats (52 percent) to 207 seats (48 percent) for Democrats, which would seem to mandate another pitched battle for control of the body next year. On the other hand, history tells us that the party holding the White House usually suffers significant losses during their second-term, midterm election, meaning that severe losses for Democrats could be in the cards.
One argument for little overall change in the House is that the two parties have lost most of their truly vulnerable seats. Most weak Democrats were ousted in 1994, while some of the weaker Republicans bit the dust in 1996.
As a result, the two parties probably are closer to their true levels of strength than at any time in recent memory. As a result both sides' vulnerability to losses is greatly reduced, and it's a good bet that the volatility of the House will likewise be reduced for a time. In other words, the pattern of big changes among the ranks, caused by huge victories followed by big losses for one party, may be over for a time. Nevertheless, with Democrats needing just an 11-seat gain to take back control, a minimal change still could result in control of the body changing hands.
The 'Six-Year Itch'
That second-term, midterm election phenomenon, first dubbed the "six-year itch" by political theorist Kevin Phillips, is not a foregone conclusion, but a very strong tendency does exist for the president's party to take a bath in such years.
Over the last five six-year itch elections, the party holding the White House has lost an average of 44 House seats: 47 in 1966, 48 in both 1958 and 1974, and 71 in 1938. The one such election that did not produce big losses was 1986, when Republicans lost just five House seats. In the Senate, the average loss is seven seats: four in 1966, five in 1974, six in 1938, eight in 1986 and 13 in 1958. The common denominator in each of the years that saw substantial House losses was severe economic trouble. The 1938 election was held during the Great Depression, 1958 and 1974 occurred during recessions and the 1966 election was concurrent with a period of very high inflation. In 1986, the exception to the rule, there were no major economic problems around the time of the election.
Scandal also played a role in the GOP's losses of 1974, after the Watergate scandal, and may also have cost the party some support in 1958 when Sherman Adams, one of President Eisenhower's closest aides, had to resign just before the election following his implication in a scandal.
Finally, foreign policy surely was a contributing factor in 1966, during the controversial Vietnam War. In 1938, the darkening clouds of World War II may have played some role.
'We'd Have Run Better Candidates'
The substantial Senate losses in 1986 can be explained by the fact that Republicans had benefited from a pro-GOP tidal wave in 1980. As such, some very weak candidates got elected only to become lambs for the slaughter six years later when they faced voters again. Then-Republican Senate Leader Bob Dole was quoted at the time as saying that in 1980, "If we had known we were going to win control of the Senate, we'd have run better candidates."
The lesson is that such debacles are not inevitable, but that it's important to keep in mind that bad things usually happen to a president's party halfway through his second term. As a result, we will be watching for each of the factors that in past six-year itch elections have triggered disastrous results for the president's party: the economy, scandal, foreign policy crises or unique political circumstances.
Today, the political environment is as neutral as we have seen in years, and neither party is on the offense or defense. Neither party got a boost from the 1996 elections; both sides have been hampered by scandals involving their titular party leaders; and both parties have sacrificed important and deeply held principles to reach the recent budget accord. If the political climate remains static through the election, we realistically could expect a fluctuation of up to 15 seats or so, with an 11-seat gain for Democrats triggering a change in control. Is it possible Democrats can win the House back in 1998? Of course. Is it likely? No. Our bet at this point would be that there is a 25 percent chance of Democrats gaining control of the House, provided that the political terrain remains as level as it is today.
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