You Don’t Need a Weatherman

What the seasonal and cyclical forces in American politics suggest about the coming elections.

Slow turning: What goes around comes around.
National Journal
Charlie Cook
March 13, 2014, 5 p.m.

The polit­ic­al chat­ter these days is about the spe­cial elec­tion in Flor­ida’s 13th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict, which was held to fill the va­cancy left by the late GOP Rep. Bill Young. The dis­trict is con­sidered to be in a very com­pet­it­ive area of the coun­try (in­deed, Pres­id­ent Obama won the 13th in 2012), and the seat was be­lieved to be held se­curely by Re­pub­lic­ans only by the strength of a long­time in­cum­bent. The GOP had long feared that, without Young, it would have a dif­fi­cult time hold­ing the dis­trict. Even go­ing in­to the cam­paign’s fi­nal days, most ob­serv­ers thought Demo­crat Alex Sink, who came with­in an eye­lash of be­ing elec­ted gov­ernor in 2010, would pre­vail over former Young aide Dav­id Jolly. This race was very im­port­ant to Demo­crats in their push to main­tain even the pos­sib­il­ity of cap­tur­ing the 17 seats needed for a House ma­jor­ity in 2014. To do so, they need to win com­pet­it­ive dis­tricts just like FL-13. While Sink was not con­sidered a fab­ulous can­did­ate, she was gen­er­ally cred­ited with be­ing a su­per­i­or can­did­ate to Jolly, who toted the bur­den­some “lob­by­ist” la­bel. Jolly’s win — he took 48.5 per­cent to Sink’s 46.7 — is a huge psy­cho­lo­gic­al blow to House Demo­crats and a sig­nal that Obama’s low poll num­bers and the Af­ford­able Care Act’s un­pop­ular­ity will very likely cost Demo­crats seats. Vir­tu­ally all of the most en­dangered Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate seats are in places a lot tough­er for the party to win than FL-13.

This state of af­fairs nat­ur­ally takes us in­to a con­ver­sa­tion about sea­sons and cycles.

It’s sur­pris­ing how many people who avidly fol­low Amer­ic­an polit­ics don’t seem to ap­pre­ci­ate that elec­tions are both sea­son­al and cyc­lic­al in nature.

The sea­son­al as­pect is the more ob­vi­ous one. Clearly in some years, or sea­sons, the wind is blow­ing in fa­vor of one party. In oth­er years, it ap­pears to blow in the op­pos­ite dir­ec­tion. In oth­ers still, as dur­ing the time between sea­sons, the par­tis­an winds do not seem to blow in any dir­ec­tion at all.

Un­for­tu­nately, the cyc­lic­al nature is lost on more people. In any giv­en even-numbered year, the House is on a cycle of its own, the Sen­ate an­oth­er, and the gov­ernor­ships yet an­oth­er. The easi­est to identi­fy is the House cycle; with its two-year terms, all you have to do is look at the pre­vi­ous elec­tion. If Demo­crats had a great year and picked up a large num­ber of Re­pub­lic­an seats, you know that Demo­crats are likely to be over­ex­posed and to suf­fer losses in the com­ing elec­tion cycle. If Re­pub­lic­ans had a ban­ner year in the pre­vi­ous elec­tion, they are more likely to lose than to gain seats. It’s all pretty straight­for­ward.

In the Sen­ate, with its six-year terms, it is ne­ces­sary to look back three elec­tions, to the last time that the cur­rent class was up for the voters’ con­sid­er­a­tion. If one side had a more suc­cess­ful elec­tion six years earli­er, that party likely will lose seats this time around. So, in 2014, we are look­ing at a group of seats last up in 2008. That was a year when Pres­id­ent Bush’s poll num­bers were de­pleted by the Ir­aq War and his hand­ling of Hur­ricane Kat­rina, and fur­ther de­pressed by the fin­an­cial crisis and the coun­try’s sub­sequent tumble in­to a deep re­ces­sion. The GOP suffered a net loss of eight seats that year. The Demo­crat­ic suc­cess back then ex­plains why the party has 21 seats up this year, in­clud­ing six in heav­ily Re­pub­lic­an states, com­pared with only 15 GOP seats, only one of which is in a Demo­crat­ic state.

Be­cause 2010 was a ter­rif­ic year for Re­pub­lic­ans, the GOP will have 24 seats up in 2016, sev­en of which are in states car­ried by Obama in 2012. Demo­crats will have only 10 seats up that year, none in a state Obama car­ried by few­er than 5 points.

These cycles are very im­port­ant but not en­tirely de­term­in­at­ive. For ex­ample, 2006 was a ter­rif­ic year for Demo­crats, so the 2012 elec­tion cycle — with 23 Demo­crat­ic and only 10 Re­pub­lic­an seats up — the­or­et­ic­ally should have been a good year for the GOP. However, 2012 was a prime ex­ample of the sea­son­al­ity of elec­tions. Obama got reelec­ted by nearly 4 per­cent­age points; his state-of-the-art cam­paign op­er­a­tion max­im­ized Demo­crat­ic turnout in a pres­id­en­tial year, which nor­mally fa­vors Demo­crats more than do midterm elec­tions, when the elect­or­ate tends to be older, whiter, and more Re­pub­lic­an. Plus, Mitt Rom­ney was no prize can­did­ate for the top of the tick­et. Mak­ing mat­ters worse, Re­pub­lic­ans nom­in­ated some rather exot­ic can­did­ates in In­di­ana and Mis­souri, seiz­ing de­feat from the jaws of vic­tory, and Re­pub­lic­ans else­where sus­tained col­lat­er­al dam­age. As a res­ult, an elec­tion that once looked like an op­por­tun­ity for Re­pub­lic­ans to gain three seats and a Sen­ate ma­jor­ity res­ul­ted in a net GOP loss of three seats, drop­ping the party’s Sen­ate roster to 45, six short of a ma­jor­ity.

Gov­ernors, most of whom serve four-year terms, are on yet a third cycle. The 2010 cycle was a hor­rif­ic one for Demo­crats, who lost six gov­ernor­ships. This year, Re­pub­lic­ans are gen­er­ally over­ex­posed in gubernat­ori­al races, de­fend­ing 22 seats to just 14 for Demo­crats. Nine of the Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor­ships (al­most half) are in states Obama car­ried. Only one of the Demo­crat­ic seats, Arkan­sas, is in a state where Rom­ney pre­vailed in 2012.

Look­ing at this Novem­ber’s midterms, then, the wind cer­tainly ap­pears to be blow­ing in fa­vor of Re­pub­lic­ans. The main ques­tion is wheth­er it is a light, mod­er­ate, strong, or hur­ricane-force wind. In terms of cycles, on the oth­er hand, Demo­crats picked up just eight House seats in 2012, after hav­ing lost 63 seats in 2010 and hav­ing gained 52 seats in the sol­id Demo­crat­ic years of 2006 and 2008 com­bined. The House is pretty much sor­ted out, and min­im­al change can be ex­pec­ted. Re­pub­lic­ans look likely to pick up a hand­ful of seats.

But be­cause Re­pub­lic­ans won so many gov­ernor­ships — 23 — in 2010, they should be pre­pared to lose seats this year. The only ques­tion that re­mains is to what ex­tent the sea­son­al par­tis­an winds and the GOP’s midterm-elec­tion-turnout edge will off­set a scen­ario oth­er­wise fa­vor­able to Demo­crats. Right now, Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port Seni­or Ed­it­or Jen­nifer Duffy (who over­sees both gubernat­ori­al and sen­at­ori­al cov­er­age) pre­dicts Demo­crats will net two to four gov­ernor­ships.

Both sea­son­al and cyc­lic­al forces are work­ing against Sen­ate Demo­crats, sug­gest­ing a really bad year for the party in the up­per cham­ber. Duffy cur­rently sees Re­pub­lic­ans pick­ing up four to six Sen­ate seats. A big­ger gain of sev­en or more seats is more likely for Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans this elec­tion than a smal­ler gain of three or few­er.

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