Midterm Elections: Control of House a "Toss-Up"

Political scientist forecasts 10-16 seat gain for Democrats

Release Date: September 26, 2006

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Democratic Party is likely to net 10-16 seats in the House of Representatives as a result of the 2006 midterm elections, according to a forecast by University at Buffalo political scientist James E. Campbell.

According to Campbell, the forecast means there is a "very real possibility" that the Democrats could gain control of the House for the first time since 1994; however, the forecast also leaves room for Republicans to narrowly hold on to their House majority.

"This suggests that control of the House is a toss-up," says Campbell, a professor and chair of the Department of Political Science in the UB College of Arts and Sciences. "There may be a slight tilt to Republicans maintaining control, if the net gain for Democrats is 10-13 seats. But it will take just another two seats the other way for Democrats to take control of the House."

Campbell's forecast is based on a historical model that considers five factors. These include the Democratic Party's share of the national presidential popular vote in the previous presidential election, the number of seats that the Democrats hold going into the midterm election and the president's approval rating in July before the midterm election.

He also factors in an "in-party midterm penalty" to take into account the tendency of voters to counterbalance a president's power by electing more of the president's partisan adversaries. And Campbell's forecast controls for the substantial "congressional realignment" of 1994-96 when voters gave Republicans control of the House for the first time since 1952.

Campbell's forecast model also takes into account how many House seats are really "in play" in 2006. The number of competitive congressional elections has been declining for some time, but dropped to very low levels over the past 20 years, Campbell notes. In the 2004 election, only 27 of the 435 House districts around the nation were contested seriously.

According to Campbell, the steady decline in the number of congressional seats in play during an election year (also known as marginal seats) means there is little opportunity for one party to make big gains in an election year.

He notes that past national elections often would produce large net gains or losses for the parties. "It was common in the first half of the 20th century for a party to gain or lose 50 seats in an election, but it is unusual now for a party to gain or lose more than 10 seats," Campbell says. "Other than 1994, neither party has gained or lost more than 10 seats in an election since 1986."

Because no one knows how many districts will be tightly fought over this year, Campbell formulated eight different versions of his forecast equation to take possible competition levels into account. The results indicate a 10-16 net seat gain for the Democrats, with the average being a 13-seat gain for the Democrats.

The forecast was published in the current issue of The Forum: A Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics http://www.bepress.com/forum.

"There is no doubt that 2006 is going to be a good year for the Democrats, but a good year isn't what it used to be," Campbell explains. "Conversely, this year is going to be a bad year for the Republicans, but a bad year doesn't mean what it used to mean either."

Whichever party controls the House, it likely will be by an unusually slim majority, Campbell says. "You may say that one party will organize the House, but neither party will control it," he adds. "In terms of policy output for the last two years of the Bush administration, we probably should expect more gridlock than usual."

A slim party majority also means that special congressional elections, due to deaths or resignation, could shift control of the House from one party to the other, Campbell points out.

A slim Democratic majority would create an interesting scenario for the party, Campbell adds. "In the later part of the 20th century when the Democrats controlled the House, they usually controlled by fairly wide margins," he says. "They aren't used to trying to pull together their coalition to get nearly unanimous votes out of the party."

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