Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 11, 2005
By: Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson

Back to the Center?....Kevin asks:

How long do you think this can last before the center finally pulls back? Or has American politics changed so fundamentally that it will stay off center forever unless Democrats adopt tactics similar to Republicans'?

In other words, what's your best guess: do Democrats need to fight fire with fire? Or will the center eventually hold if Democrats figure out a more effective way of appealing to moderate voters?

There are actually two distinct, but obviously linked, questions here. (1) How much is it going to take to push things back towards the center? And (2) what strategies give Democrats the best chance of succeeding? Since these are both BIG questions, and since we want to spark conversation on both of them, we take up the first one in this post. We plan to tackle the second one tomorrow.

One of the central claims of Off Center is that we shouldnt expect any natural pendulum-like process to restore moderation in Washington. Indeed, though cracks in the GOP faade are obvious, these vulnerabilities shouldnt blind us to the Partys continuing formidable sources of strength.

To keep the discussion manageable, were going to concentrate on Congress. This is the place to focus anyway. Its Congress that next has to face the electorate. Its Congress that as we suggested in a previous post is at the heart of todays GOP dominance. And its Congress that is the grand prize in the next crucial battle in American electoral politics. Moreover, all this is true even if, as we believe, Bush is poised to continue his rapid descent into lame-duck status.

And our strong view is that, even with Republicans back on their heels, recapturing Congress will be an extremely tall mountain to climb. Understanding why takes us to the very heart of the transformations in contemporary politics that we stress in our book.

First, as regular readers of this site are aware, incumbents are unbelievably advantaged in the current electoral system. For House incumbents, the average margin of victory in 2004 was forty percent (i.e., 70-30). The last two elections have seen the fewest incumbent defeats in American electoral historyfour in 2002, and five in 2004 (with two of those a result of the DeLay-led Texas gerrymander). Most districts are very safe for one party or the other (in part because of gerrymandering, but primarily because many areas of the country lean heavily to one party). In addition, of course, incumbents have huge advantages in funding, name recognition, and the capacity to tailor an appealing (if often grossly distorted) public profile in their district. These advantages seem to have grown dramatically, and they help to explain why even in the small number of districts where one party doesn't have a huge natural advantage, only open seat races are typically in play. Once a candidate has won one or two elections, they are usually very safe.

Second, over and above these huge assets of incumbency (which disproportionately help the GOP, since theyre the majority), Republicans have a number of big structural advantages that make that electoral mountain higher still. They have been better positioned to gerrymander seats to give them a bigger edge, and more aggressive in doing so. (Between 2000 and 2004 alone, redistricting created roughly twelve additional Republican-leaning seats.) They have more money, and a more centralized apparatus to get that money where it is most needed in a close election. Probably most important but still not always appreciated, they have a huge built-in edge in the Senate because small states (which lean red) are so overrepresented. Democrats can win a lot more votes in Senate elections and still not gain control. In fact, they already have: Over the past three election cycles, the 44 Democrats in the Senate have received two-and-a-half million more votes than the 55 Republicans.

Finally, the high level of Republican unity and coordination that we have discussed helps the GOP protect these advantages. It helps them to control the agenda, which is absolutely crucial in politics. Ron Brownstein of the LA Times recently described contemporary Washington as akin to watching a basketball game where the same team always has the ball, or a baseball game where one team is always at bat. Unity allows Republicans to pursue a whole range of policy tricks and procedural moves that allow their members, especially the vulnerable ones, to appear moderate and independent without jeopardizing their conservative agenda at all.

By historical standards, the swing required to bring Democrats back to power in Congress is pretty small. It used to be common for elections to produce swings of 20-50 seats. Even a decade ago, close to 100 seats in Congress were won by 55% of the vote or less. But that was then and this is now. In 2004, fewer than 30 seats met even this minimal standard of competitiveness. Today, put simply, it takes a much bigger political push to produce a much smaller electoral shift.

Could such a push happen? Sure, but it is almost impossible to know so far ahead of an election. Thirteen months is a very long time in electoral politics. The main thing to recognize is how bighow profoundly far from automaticsuch a political correction needs to be. And this is the case even though the balance between the parties is so exceptionally closewhich, of course, simply underscores how distressing the current state of American politics truly is.

So what should Democrats do? Stay tuned.

Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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