- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2008




In addition to losing the White House in Tuesday’s election, Republicans took another thumping across the country in congressional elections, with Democrats increasing their majorities in both the House and Senate.

Despite the immediate buzz about Democrats’ big win and expanded dominance, putting the 2008 results into historical context reveals some structural patterns that make their gains less surprising. Recent trends also highlight the political geography the GOP must traverse if it hopes to contend for majority status in Congress again.

Viewed in the context of the last half-century, Tuesday’s Democratic congressional landslide represents more of a return to the status quo than a dramatic new political realignment. Americans — it seems — like Democratic majorities running Congress. And even when they lose power, the current majority always stays in striking distance of taking it back. It’s been 60 years since Democrats even dipped below 200 seats in the House (the 80th Congress, 1947-1949, when they held 188 seats). That means in every Congress for the past 60 years, whether in the majority or minority in the House, Democrats have controlled no less than 200 seats.

In contrast, Republican majorities in Congress are more the exception. When Republicans fall from favor in the House, they plummet — sometimes dipping into irrelevant range. The party contracted to 144 seats after the 1974 election and below 170 again after the 1982 and 1990 midterm elections. In fact, the GOP has controlled the majority in only 12 of the last 40 years. It has done slightly better in the Senate, holding the majority for about 16 1/2 of the last 40 years (Republicans had a six-month majority in 2001 before Sen. James Jeffords switched parties, giving Democrats a slender majority halfway through 2001 that they retained until after the 2002 elections).

Republicans’ capturing control of all levers of power — House, Senate and White House — after the 2000 presidential election led many to conclude America was now an “evenly divided” or “50-50” nation. That may have been true at the time, but the Republican rise was also due to some unusual and temporary trends that have now run their course.

GOP gains nationally mask a critical regional reality. A significant shift toward Republicans in the South over the past half-century caused much of the party’s recent ascendancy. According to “Vital Statistics on Congress,” in 1961 when John Kennedy took office, only six House GOP members (3.4 percent of the Republican Conference) came from Southern states. By 2008 that figure had ballooned to 77 percent (38 percent of total House Republicans). Similarly, in 1961 nearly one out of three Republicans came from the Midwest (29.3 percent of total House Republicans). By 2008 that number had dropped to 17.8 percent. The share of the GOP conference from Mid-Atlantic states also dipped from 25.9 percent in 1961 to 10.4 percent this year.

A parallel pattern emerges in party strength in presidential voting. Princeton University political scientist Larry M. Bartels, in his book “Unequal Democracy,” breaks down the average presidential vote by party and region between 1952 and 2004. He finds that while the Democratic presidential vote declined by 15 percentage points among white Southerners, it actually increased among whites in the rest of the country. Mr. Bartels concludes: “Although tons of ink have been devoted to the demise of the Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition, remarkably few analysts seem to have noticed that the net decline in support for Democratic presidential candidates among white voters over the past half-century is entirelyattributable to partisan change in the South.” But as its political support spread throughout old Dixie, the party’s competitiveness in other parts of the country began to wane. These historical trends help explain the 2006 and 2008 elections. First, Democratic majorities in Congress represent a restoration of a more common pattern in American politics. Second, Democrats are fighting a two-front war - battling back in the South and continuing to hammer away at Republican remnants in other parts of the country.

If the GOP wants to compete seriously for the congressional majority down the road, political geography suggests it needs to expand its current electoral footprint. The political calculus of Congress will not allow a party with strength concentrated in only one region to capture majority control in the House or Senate. Without expanding its political topography, Republicans will be relegated to the role they have played for many of the past 50 years - toiling in permanent minority status.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of Dutko Worldwide.

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