An Analysis of the 2010 House Elections

Tuesday, January 11, AD 2011

I’m a bit late with this post, but it seems appropriate now as a sort of follow-up to my previous post regarding the House of Representatives.  When someone is both a political junkie and a stats nerd like I am, it’s hard to resist the temptation to delve into the numbers of any election.  So I am going to take a closer look at some of the more interesting figures from last November’s election results for the U.S. House of Representatives.First the basics.  Republicans picked up 66 seats while Democrats picked up three, for a net Republican gain of 63 seats.  This left the Republicans with a 242-193 majority in the House.  The Republicans did particularly well in a handful of populous states.  They added a total of six seats in New York, five in Pennsylvania, four each in Florida, Illinois and Pennsylvania, and three each in Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.  In the case of New York they only started out with two of the 29 (soon to be 27) House seats in New York, so the Democrats retain a huge 21-8 advantage in New York.  Meanwhile, not a single one of 53 House seats in California changed hands.  Not one.  That’s all you need to know about the wonderful affects of gerrymandering in that state.

Overall, Republicans have a majority of the delegations in 33 states, the Democrats in 16, with an even 4-4 split in Minnesota.  Among the most Republican heavy delegations are: Florida (24 R, 5 D), Ohio (13 R, 5 D), and Texas (23-9), with a huge advantage throughout most of the southeast except for North Carolina, where Democrats retain a 7-6 advantage.  Democrats, meanwhile, retain a stranglehold on the northeast.  Republicans picked up both House seats in New Hampshire, bringing their entire New England delegation to . . . two.  Seriously, New England was the one major disappointment for Republicans during the mid-term elections.  There had been hope that they could win at least a couple of seats in Massachusetts and perhaps Connecticut as well, but all 20 seats in the other five New England states remain in Democrat hands.  When you add New York to the mix, 48 of the 193 Democratic House seats are in those six states, and 90 of 193 if you go out to the other coast and add California, Oregon and Washington.  To put it in perspective, Republicans have a majority in the Illinois delegation (11-8).  In other words, the party did staggeringly well between the coasts.

So how close did the Republicans come to having an even bigger night?  In 45 Democratic victories, of which 44 were incumbents, the winning candidate received less than 55% of the vote, and 25 of these received 51% or less.  On the other side, victorious Republican candidates received less than 55% of the vote in 53 elections, but most of these were party switches (more on that in a second).  Only two incumbent Republicans failed to win an outright majority of voters – Dold in Illinois and Ross in Florida.  Overall, Republican incumbents did very well, including 24 winning in uncontested races.  Only 24 Republican incumbents (or Republican-held seats) won with less than 60 percent of the vote – meaning as many Republican incumbents won with 100% of the vote as won with less than 60%.  It was quite a different story for Democrat incumbent and Democratic-held seats, 82 of which won with less than 60 percent of the vote.  So, as bad a night as it was for the Democrats, it could have been worse.

A look at the party switches tells us a lot about the night, and also gives some insight into the next election.  The Democrats won three seats.  In Louisiana they ousted Joseph Cao, who had won the heavily Democrat seat in 2008 only because of a scandal involving incumbent Representative William Jefferson.  The Democrats also picked up the at-large seat of “retiring” Congressman Mike Castle, and also ousted Charles Djou in another otherwise strongly Democratic seat in Hawaii.  All three seats are probably safe seats for the Democrats going forward.

As for the Republicans, they won 38 seats that they had lost control of after the 2006 and 2008 elections:  14 seats that switched in 2006 switched back in 2010, and 24 lost in 2008 were re-gained in 2010.  In many of the cases where Republicans won in districts long held by Democrats, these involved Blue Dog Democrats that were finally ousted.  A prime example of this was Mississippi’s fourth district, located in the southern part of the state, including Biloxi.  The district had been represented by Gene Taylor since 1988.  Taylor was the most conservative member of the Democratic caucus and arguably was to the right of the state’s two Republican Senators.  But even he could not survive the electoral tsunami – not in a District where John McCain beat Barack Obama 67% to 32%.  Steven Palazzo defeated Taylor 52-47 – a close race, but that seat is almost certainly now one of the safest seats in the House for the GOP.  Republicans also picked up three seats in Tennessee – all long-held by Democrats, almost all now safe seats for Republicans as the state completes its transformati0n into one of the toughest strongholds for the party in the entire country.  Republicans picked up a seat in Arkansas – the first congressional district – it had not won since the end of Reconstruction, and which is an increasingly GOP-friendly district.  All in all, Republicans picked up about a dozen seats which, even though the party had not won there in recent years (if ever), now become among the safest seats for the GOP to hold.

Generally speaking, another encouraging sign for the Republicans is that they had very few, if any, fluke wins.  In almost all of the cases, the Republicans won in either swing districts or districts which tend to favor Republicans in national elections.  What that means is that of the 242 seats that they will have to defend next time, they start out with either a slight or insurmountable advantage in almost all of them.

That’s not to say that it’s entirely rosy for Republicans.  Of their 66 gross pickups, 41 were won with less than 55% of the vote, and even numbers above that mark don’t guarantee re-election next time around.  For instance, South Dakota Democrat Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin won 68 percent of the vote in 2008 and lost her re-election bid to Kristi Noem by a couple of percentage points this time around.  Granted South Dakota is an otherwise strongly Republican state, and her competition was much stiffer this time around, but turnarounds can happen.  In fact, in 43 races – 2/3rd of the total pickups – the Democrat candidate had won at least 55% of the vote in 2008, and 27 had achieved over 60 percent.  Now, many of these were open races, and 2008 was a particularly good year for Democrats.  But it should serve as a note of caution that the magical 60 percent number isn’t a guarantee of victory next time around.

All that being said, the numbers are mostly encouraging for the GOP.  Redistricting in wake of the 2010 census is going to give them an even bigger advantage in 2012.  Nominally the Democrats would need to pick up a net 25 seats in 2012 to regain the majority, a tall order any election, but add to that the redistricting number and the fact that a decent chunk of these newly won Republican seats can already be counted as safe, and it’s a very uphill climb for the Democrats.

Another problem for the Democrats (and here I have to slightly bend my resolution about not discussing the presidential race) is that even victorious incumbent presidential candidates have not had very strong coattails in recent history.  Democrats can always point to the 1948 election for historical comfort – not only did they regain all the seats lost in 1946, but they picked up an extra handful.  Unfortunately for them, that was something of an anomaly.  Since Truman, four ultimately successful incumbent presidents lost House seats during their first mid-term election: Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and Clinton.  Only one of them picked up as many seats in their re-election year as they lost during the mid-term.  Eisenhower and Clinton both experienced a loss of party control in the House during their mid-term, and were subsequently unable to win back control of the House in their own re-election.  As for Reagan, the Republicans lost 27 seats in 1982 and only picked up 16 despite Reagan’s landslide victory in 1984.  Richard Nixon managed to pick up as many seats in 1972 as he lost in 1970, but the Republicans were already dealing with a pretty low base.  Even George Bush, who actually witnessed a party pickup of eight seats in 2002, won only a few more seats in 2004.  The last incumbent president to benefit from a substantial boost was LBJ in 1964 when the Democrats added to their majority by an additional 36 seats.

So history would suggest that even if Barack Obama wins re-election, it would hardly ensure that Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives.  This actually makes sense from a logical standpoint.  If Obama does win that reflects some measure of satisfaction with the current state of affairs.  If the economy recovers and things seem to be on the right track, that will obviously benefit Obama, but it will also help the Republicans in Congress.  Now perhaps Obama can successfully demonize the House a la Harry Truman in 1948, but that will be difficult to do.  It would be absurd to predict at this early a stage what will happen in 2012, but many of the signs right now would be hopeful ones for the GOP as far as the House of Representatives is concerned.

One Response to An Analysis of the 2010 House Elections

  • The Democrats have been able to win seats in GOP areas for years by running conservative Democrats. The last two years demonstrated how ineffectual Blue Dog Democrats were in moderating the course of their party when the Democrats controlled both Congress and the White House. The destruction of the idea that conservative Democrats have any meaningful role in the modern Democrat party is probably the greatest single blow to the Democrat party since the South stopped being a Democrat stronghold. I think this makes it much harder for Democrats to win house seats outside of the coasts, New England and major urban areas.