- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2003

The dusty volume with yellowed pages sat innocuously on the gray metal shelf of a small local library. Who knew it could decipher 25 years of American political history — well almost.

In 1969, Kevin Phillips wrote a prophetic book called the “Emerging Republican Majority,” predicting a major political realignment in America, resulting in significant gains in the GOP’s political strength. Mr. Phillips argued that conservative voters, particularly in the South and West, would shift allegiance from the Democrat to Republican Party, serving as the core of a new and potent electoral coalition.

His analysis proved accurate at the presidential level almost immediately, but the predicted changes in Congress took a little longer. Yet, now that the GOP congressional majority has arrived, two more recent developments — redistricting and the decline of split-ticket voting — mean the Republican majority has not only emerged, but it may also endure throughout this decade.

Mr. Phillips’ predictions at the presidential level occurred not long after the publication of his book. Five of the seven American presidents since 1969 were Republicans. And the only two winning Democrats (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton) won only by campaigning as moderates, successfully cutting into the GOP’s increasingly brawny bulwark in the South.

Nonetheless, it took nearly a quarter-century for Phillip’s prediction about a GOP majority in Congress to come to fruition, culminating with Republican majorities in the House and Senate after the 1994 election. Structural factors — such as redistricting, the power of congressional incumbency and increasing partisanship among voters — are the reasons why it took a little longer for the Republican majority to spread. University of California, San Diego congressional election expert Gary C. Jacobson agrees. Writing in the spring 2003 issue of Political Science Quarterly, he notes that these changes during the last quarter-century not only resulted in a GOP congressional majority, but may also cause it to last for a while.

Congressional redistricting, particularly after 2000, provided a boost to Republicans. Reconstructing the 2000 presidential vote in the current 2002 congressional districts, Mr. Jacobson finds that even though Al Gore outpolled George Bush nationally, the president beat his Democrat opponent in 237 of the current House districts. According to Jacobson, “This means that Republican voters are distributed more efficiently than Democratic voters, and more so now after redistricting. Democratic voters are more likely to be ‘wasted’ in lopsided districts; 53 percent of the Gore-majority districts have more than 60 percent Gore voters, whereas only 41 percent of the Bush majority districts have more that 60 percent Bush voters.”

These numbers are even more troubling for Democrats because of another long-term trend — the decline in ticket splitting. Since the early 1980s, voters increasingly vote for the same party for president and Congress. After split-ticket voting reached a peak in the 1970s, voting patterns today are more like the 1950s, when voters tended to choose the same party in national elections for offices on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

What Jacobson terms a “structural disadvantage” means that, “Democrats would have to win 20 Bush-majority districts in addition to all the Gore majority districts to gain control of the House; Republicans would win a House majority similar to what they have now if they won only the Bush-majority districts.”

Another element in the GOP structural advantage is the dramatic rise in the number of “safe” seats, particularly in the Republican column. Mr. Jacobson estimates the number of safe seats between 1992-2002 increased for both parties. Yet Republican safe seats skyrocketed. He estimates Republicans gained about three times as many safe districts, and even after “losing most of their at-risk districts, Democrats still hold a majority of such seats.”

The trends in the Senate for Democrats are no better. Winning big states is important in presidential contests because they carry with them large numbers of electoral votes. Yet, when it comes to putting together a majority in the Senate, Kansas counts as much as California. Recent voting trends underscore why this redounds to the advantage of GOP control of the Senate, too. Mr. Gore won six of the nine most populous states, while Mr. Bush won 15 of the 20 least populated. According to Mr. Jacobson, “Bush, with less than half the national vote, took 30 states; Gore took only 20.”

Again, because of the greater consistency between presidential voting and other offices, if those 30 Bush states ultimately elect Republican senators, the long-term pattern of control should trend toward a 60-40 Senate GOP majority, compared to the current 51-49 split.

Politics is a fickle business; these current patterns by no means guarantee Republicans long-term majority status. Yet when trends like those identified in Mr. Phillips’ book conspire with structural dynamics such as redistricting and equal representation in the Senate, the “emerging Democrat majority” may be more appropriate for paperback fiction.

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