[Mb-civic] An article for you from an Economist.com reader.

michael at intrafi.com michael at intrafi.com
Mon Sep 20 09:27:12 PDT 2004


Dear Civic,

Michael Butler (michael at intrafi.com) wants you to see this article on Economist.com.

The sender also included the following message for you:

The Battle for Congress
A Sham of Democracy

(Note: the sender's e-mail address above has not been verified.)

Subscribe to Economist.com now and save 25% by clicking here now

Sep 16th 2004  

The battle for control of the Senate is tight; the battle for the House
of Representatives is a travesty of democracy

THIS week observers from India, South Africa, the Philippines and
elsewhere arrived--one hopes with a due sense of irony--to check up on
the American election. In testing the operations of the country's
democracy, they should perhaps look not only at particular flaws in the
system, but at the system itself, especially the egregious practice of
gerrymandering electoral districts for partisan gain. The contests for
Senate seats (and the presidency) are vigorous. But if democracy means
multi-party competition at the grass roots, America is not a full
democracy in elections to the House of Representatives. 

Only 29 of 435 House seats are listed as competitive by CONGRESSIONAL
QUARTERLY. That compares with an average of 50 in 2000-02, and more
than 100 in 1992-96. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia has
given up calling his list of close races the "nifty fifty" and now
names it the "dirty thirty". Charlie Cook, a political analyst, lists
33 (the dots on our map above) but puts the really close races at just
13. The current Republican majority is 22.

The sheer uncompetitiveness of most House races takes one's breath
away. In 2002, four out of five of them were won by more than 20
points. The average margin was a stunning two to one, meaning some
races had even bigger margins. Last time, 200 races had margins of 40
points of more and 80 were uncontested. So far this year, the
uncontested figure is 68. In 2002, just four incumbents lost to
challengers at the polls (another four lost in primaries). North Korea
might be proud of the incumbent re-election rate: 99%. More than nine
in ten Americans live in districts that are, in practice, one-party

 This year's election could be even less competitive than 2002. The
last election was the first after the decennial round of redistricting
(the process of redrawing congressional boundaries to reflect
demographic change). As such it should have been the most competitive
of the ten-year cycle, with congressmen scrambling to appeal to new

 True, some Democrats hope that 2004 will be a shade more competitive
than 2002. Last time, many of their best challengers were put off
standing by Mr Bush's then stratospheric approval ratings. This year's
crop of challengers looks better. Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster,
says that in districts she has studied, 59-65% of respondents say they
want a representative who will vote in Congress on behalf of their
district, rather than the president's agenda. There is also some
appetite for ticket splitting: our YouGov poll[1] this week finds that
12% would like either a Kerry victory with Republicans controlling
Congress or a Bush victory with Democratic control (see chart). 

 This will surely only make a difference at the margin. Without a
political hurricane blowing the Democrats' way, John Kerry's party
stands no chance of recapturing the House. The large number of safe
seats means congressional elections are anyway "sticky": small shifts
in party support nationally make little difference to control of
Congress. According to the Centre for Voting and Democracy, if
Democrats were to get 52% of the vote (which would be quite an
achievement) it would only reduce the number of their own vulnerable
seats from 14 to 10.

 To recapture Congress, calculates Michael McDonald of the Brookings
Institution, Democrats would need 57% of the two-party vote, which
seems extremely unlikely. It is true that no one saw the 1994
Republican landslide before it happened either. But, as Rhodes Cook, a
non-partisan election analyst argues, such a result in a presidential
year would imply a landslide at the top of the ticket--and there is no
sign that Mr Kerry is that popular. 

 On top of this, Democrats face a pro-Republican bias in congressional
voting. The Democratic base lies in big cities. There, they pile up
huge majorities. Republicans are more evenly spread out in suburbs,
small towns and the countryside. According to Gary Jacobson of the
University of California, San Diego, every district in which the
presidential candidate piled up 80% or more of the vote in 2000 was
Democratic. Almost twice as many of those districts where the candidate
won with less than 60% of the vote were Republican ones.

 This geography is a big reason why Republicans control the House of
Representatives, even when Democrats have won more votes. By
gerrymandering to cram Democrats into a smaller number of super-safe
seats while spreading Republicans into a larger number of "designer
districts" which they win by 55%-60%, Republicans have consolidated
this edge. According to Mr Jacobson, the number of safe Republican
seats rose by 56 in 1992-2002, while the number of safe Democratic ones
rose by only 16. The Republicans have just pushed through a
particularly brutal round of redistricting in Texas (admittedly
cancelling out decades of cheating by the Democrats) which should give
them a net gain of three to six seats. 

If you had any doubt that redistricting is stifling electoral
competition, you need only look at the Senate, where the process does
not apply. Of the 34 Senate races this year, a dozen could change hands.

 A few weeks ago, the Democrats thought they had an even chance of
overturning the Republicans' effective 51-49 advantage in the Senate.
They would do this by holding three of their five vulnerable southern
seats (Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and both Carolinas); by holding all
their own seats with serious challenges elsewhere (South Dakota,
Washington and Wisconsin); and by picking up Illinois and three
Republican seats in the west (Alaska, Colorado and Oklahoma).

 That was always a tall order. If the Democrats have looked bound to
win Illinois, they have looked equally certain to lose Georgia. The
eight closest races are all in states Mr Bush won in 2000--and
Democrats are defending five of them. Optimistic Democrats talked of
local factors pulling them through, such as bruising Republican
primaries and popular local Democrats. In Alaska, for instance, the
Democrats have a former governor up against a less experienced
Republican who was appointed to the Senate seat by her father (who gave
it up to become governor).

But the Democrats' job has become tougher. The Republicans have chosen
their candidates well in Florida, South Carolina, Colorado and
Wisconsin (see article[2]). And Mr Bush's renewed polling strength has
encouraged people lower down the ticket to jump on his coattails,
whereas Mr Kerry is little help to southern Democrats. 

 To get to a majority of 51, the party has to win seven of the closely
contested races (six if Mr Kerry wins and John Edwards casts the
tie-breaker). Perhaps Democrats may hold their incumbent seats outside
the south (though they are neck and neck in South Dakota). Perhaps they
can win all three western states. But to win three southern states, let
alone four, is an uphill struggle. The only thing one can say is that
at least there will be a vigorous contest--unlike in the House.

[1] http://www.economist.com/displayStory.cfm?story_ID=2907805
[2] http://www.economist.com/displayStory.cfm?story_ID=3204148

See this article with graphics and related items at http://www.economist.com/research/articlesBySubject/displayStory.cfm?story_id=3203239&subjectID=1527355&emailauth=%2527%2523%2540%255F%255EKH%255B%255D%255D%2540X%2520%250A

Go to http://www.economist.com for more global news, views and analysis from the Economist Group.


Economist.com is the online version of The Economist newspaper, an independent weekly international news and business publication offering clear reporting, commentary and analysis on world politics, business, finance, science & technology, culture, society and the arts. Economist.com also offers exclusive content online, including additional articles throughout the week in the Global Agenda section.


Click here: http://www.economist.com/subscriptions/offer.cfm?campaign=168-XLMT

Subscribe now with 25% off and receive full access to: 

* all the articles published in The Economist newspaper
* the online archive - allowing you to search and retrieve over 33,000 articles published in The Economist since 1997 
* The World in 2004 - The Economist's outlook on 2004 
* The US Election 2004 - providing dedicated coverage of the election, including articles from Roll Call, Capitol Hill's leading political publication 
* Business encyclopedia - allows you to find a definition and explanation for any business term 


This e-mail was sent to you by the person at the e-mail address listed
above through a link found on Economist.com.  We will not send you any 
future messages as a result of your being the recipient of this e-mail.


This e-mail message and Economist articles linked from it are copyright
(c) 2004 The Economist Newspaper Group Limited. All rights reserved.

Economist.com privacy policy: http://www.economist.com/about/privacy.cfm

More information about the Mb-civic mailing list