By Political Director
updated 10/18/2006 6:38:49 PM ET 2006-10-18T22:38:49
ON THE TRAIL

WASHINGTON — There are two ways to look at any election cycle -- by comparing it to past cycles or taking it at face value. The problem for prognosticators is that we have to use both methods simultaneously.

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History is my guiding principle on all things political, but I also believe that every election is an individual snowflake.

The similarities between this midterm cycle and '94 are striking, and yet the differences are stark. I've broken down this debate into reasons why the cycles are and are not similar.

The reasons why '06 seems similar to '94 are:

1. One-Party Control: This is probably the single most important similarity framing this cycle. In order for a "change" election atmosphere to work for the minority party, the party in power has to be viewed as in control of everything. And right now it's clear that Republicans are in charge. Still, GOP partisans will argue that no one really controls the Senate without 60 votes, but that doesn't resonate with voters. A Republican is speaker of the House, a Republican is Senate majority leader and there's a Republican in the White House. And thanks to the controversy involving Terri Schiavo, the public presumably views the judiciary as skewing to the right.

Similarly, in '94, there was no denying that the Democrats were in charge. Democrats held all three positions.

2. Unpopular President: Like '94, this president has a job rating south of 45 percent. And because President Bush is a member of the party leading Capitol Hill, his problems are Congress' problems. The thing that ought to scare Republicans a bit more about this cycle, compared with how '94 should have scared Democrats, is that Bush's job rating is hovering just beneath 40 percent.

In '94, "unpopular" for Clinton was defined as the mid-40s. In fact, in a quick database search of national polls for this same week in '94, the lowest job rating I could find for Clinton was 41 percent (Gallup) and the highest was 48 percent (NBC/Wall Street Journal). Compare that with recent national polls that have come out for Bush. The floor was 36 percent (Gallup) and the ceiling was 43 percent (NPR). What a Republican running for re-election wouldn't give right now for Bush to be sniffing 45 percent, let alone 48 percent.

3. Ethics Problems: For me, the '94 cycle will always be defined by the ethics virus that was more contagious among congressional Democrats than it was for Clinton. This cycle, it appears the unpopularity of Bush is trumping ethics. However, the GOP's ethics problems are potentially the proverbial last straw. The electorate wants change and is uneasy, but the reason they want change isn't corruption -- it's Bush and Iraq. That said, the ethics problems just might be too much to swallow with some voters who may be thinking, "You know, maybe even my congressman is out of touch."

An incumbent's brush with an ethics problem says more concretely to a voter that the lawmaker has lost touch than does a difference in policy. In '94, the Democrats' ethics problems created a slew of open seats. Many longtime incumbents chose to retire rather than lose. Although an en masse Republican retirement isn't happening now, this ethics virus infecting Capitol Hill is not nearly as widespread as the House banking and Post Office scandals of '94.

4. Unpopular Issue: In '94, Republicans were able to beat two issues over Democrats' heads successfully: health care (or "Hillary Care") and taxes, with taxes being the most effective. This cycle, it's Iraq. Democrats did their best to distance themselves from those two issues in '94; right now, Republicans are doing all they can to distance themselves from Iraq.

5. Disbelief In Losing: Even now, if media reports are correct, the White House just doesn't believe the GOP will lose control of either chamber of Congress. In '94, when the cycle began, both the House and Senate seemed out of reach for the GOP. They needed 40 seats in the House and seven seats in the Senate. At the beginning of 2006, the 15-seat House threshold for Democratic control looked quite out of reach due to the redistricting following the 2000 census, and the six Senate seats seemed like a bridge too far. Like the Democrats thought in '94, this year's Republicans know they will lose seats, but they think there is no way they will lose majorities in both chambers. Denial is a very dangerous problem for a political party in the majority.

Convinced? This cycle is just like '94. In fact, let's call off the election -- the cake is baked. Unless...

The five reasons why this cycle is not like '94:

1. Prepared Incumbents: In the '94 election cycle, many of the Democrats seeking re-election hadn't run real races since rotary phones were the standard. But the current group of embattled Republicans, and the party apparatus supporting them, are as good at campaign mechanics as any political party ever. The embattled Republican incumbents (with a few exceptions) have more money and resources than those paleo-Democrats who ran in '94.

2. Relatively Few Retirements/Freshmen: In '94, 28 Democrats vacated House seats, and as any political analyst will tell you, it's a lot easier to win an open seat than defeat an incumbent. Plus, another 15 freshmen Democrats elected in '92 lost re-election. This cycle, the Republican open-seat count sits at 20 (counting former Florida Rep. Mark Foley and Ohio Rep. Bob Ney). And while that number is fairly comparable to '94, the number of vulnerable GOP freshmen this cycle numbers six (and that's being generous). The Democrats in '94 had a huge freshmen class and as the results showed, those freshmen took a beating.

3. Nervous And Cynical Electorate: The starkest difference between '94 and today is the way the electorate views Congress, change and the two political parties. As the Democratic Party became more unpopular in '94, the GOP saw its favorability ratings rise. But this cycle, it's hard to find a poll where the Democrats are viewed a lot more positively than the GOP. The Democrats' favorability ratings are a bit better, but they are no where near how the electorate in '94 compared the GOP and Democrats. This explanation addresses the "cynical" aspect.

The "nervous" part is the post-9/11 hangover that still bothers the electorate. Voters are taking their political decisions very seriously, and that means there could be hesitation toward change. In '94, it was clear the electorate had no qualms about change. How else can 52 seats changing hands and a speaker of the House actually losing re-election be explained?

4. An Engaged White House: No recent White House seems as engaged in the day-to-day political needs of its party as the Bush White House. In '94, congressional Democrats and the Clinton White House wanted little interaction. That's not so with this White House who, arguably, hand-picked the current majority leader and has done more in the last three weeks to prop up House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., than anyone else. In '94, the Clinton White House didn't seem to know how or where to help, and the congressional Democratic veterans who never took the Clintonistas seriously didn't care to ask. Despite all the rumors floating around right now of feuds between the Bush White House and various congressional GOP strategists, the two sides are much more in sync than Clinton and his Democratic allies were in '94.

5. 2000-01 Census/Redistricting: The untold story of the '94 cycle was the '90-91 census and subsequent redistricting. Thanks to President George H.W. Bush and the Justice Department, the '91 reapportionment created an opening for the GOP to run the table in the South and defeat a number of longtime white Democratic incumbents. How? By creating a slew of minority-majority congressional districts in places like Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. What the new maps did was pack a number of Democrats into fewer House districts, leaving a ton of 50- to 60-percent GOP presidential performing districts to be represented by Democrats. The '92 campaign cycle should have seen the GOP pick up a lot more of those seats, but they didn't thanks to the lackluster Bush campaign. Once '94 rolled around, these Democrats were still sitting ducks, and the Republicans scooped up easy targets. There are very few slam dunks for the Democrats this cycle because of redistricting. Sure, there are 18 to 20 seats that should be in Democratic hands, but they are being represented by some of the GOP's better incumbents.

So there are elements of '94 in this election cycle, but there are also a number of factors that indeed make this cycle unique. History tells us this should be a Democratic rout, and history may eventually be proven correct. But before handing the speaker's gavel to Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and addressing Nevada Sen. Harry Reid (D) as "Mr. Majority Leader," realize that no embattled majority party has ever been as prepared for what's coming than this one. The GOP's hurricane shutters are state of the art, but sometimes even "state of the art" isn't enough to stop a storm from creating all sorts of havoc.

Chuck Todd is a NationalJournal.com contributing editor and editor in chief of The Hotline. His e-mail address is ctodd@nationaljournal.com.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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