National Journal, August 23, 1998

The Handicapping Begins for '98

by Richard E. Cohen

It's only August 1997, but lawmakers and the hopefuls looking to oust them are already beginning to size up the prospects for themselves and their parties in next year's congressional elections.

Many political strategists have been predicting that 1998 will feature fewer close House races than has been the case in recent years, when campaign insiders saw as many as 150 truly competitive clashes each election. With only seven Democrats and six Republicans retiring from the House or expecting to seek other office, the landscape so far appears relatively stable.

Officials of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who would presumably benefit from greater volatility as they seek to help Democrats regain House control, forecast fewer than 100 serious contests. But Rep. Jon Christensen of Nebraska, who heads candidate recruitment at the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he has had visits from many GOP aspirants who "want to be part of the majority."

It's still early, of course. But decisions that are made a year before an elections, on matters such as who retires and who runs, can have a major impact on the results. After all, the demands of seeking a House seat, a project that these days often carries a $1 million price tag, are not for the timid.

Two provocative, wide-ranging studies of the 1996 congressional elections recently released by Washington-based political groups provide abundant data and insight. Last year's battles, while yielding striking little partisan change in the House and Senate, revealed important new trends and techniques that are likely to have a major impact on the 1998 campaigns.....

In its study, "Monopoly Politics," the nonpartisan Center for Voting and Democracy emphasized how few House seats are at risk in most campaigns. Its preview of the 1998 elections showed that the incumbent party is in danger in only 75 districts, and these are divided virtually evenly between the parties. "Most Americans, most of the time, experience 'no- choice' House elections," the report found. The chief cause, it continued, is that in most districts, a clear majority of voters favors the views of one party over the other.

Citing these conclusions, the center argued for changing U.S. elections to "proportional representation." Such a system, used in many Western democracies, allocates legislative seats according to the share of the vote received by each party; this tends to encourage the formation of third parties. Although the center has urged states to use proportional representation to resolve contentious redistricting battles, that appears improbable for now.

The center's study stressed how hard it is to defeat most House incumbents. Of the 171 House Members first elected before 1990, only two who sought another term in 1996 were defeated; of the winners, all but seven had a victory margin of at least 10%.

But other data in "Monopoly Politics" undermines some of the center's conclusions. In fact, the three congressional elections since 1990 have been far more competitive than were the contests during the previous decade. From 1992 to 1996, the share of elections in which the winners led by at least 20% ranged from 61% to 64%. By contrast, the elections from 1982 to 1990 scored much higher on this "landslide index" -- ranging from 69% to 85%. Likewise, only in two other elections since 1966 were at least as many House incumbents defeated as in each of the three most recent elections.

The conclusions from the two studies are less relevant to contests for the Senate, in which the costs are considerably higher and where nearly one-third of incumbents have declined to seek re-election in the past three election years. Only seven Senators have lost re-election bids since 1990, a slightly higher success rate than during the previous decade.

As both parties gear up for the 1998 election, each will be seeking issues that rally voters to its side. That goal has become ever more important because of the recent drops in voter turnout. Given the recent bipartisan cooperation over the budget deal, plus the prospect of a further blurring of partisan lines this fall during the expected debate on President Clinton's proposal for fast-track trade negotiating authority, the imperative for some partisan line-drawing will be strong.