Column: Politics, by the numbers
By George F. Will, Washington Post Writers Group
WASHINGTON — Two years from now, Iowa — dark, brooding, enigmatic Iowa — will be enjoying its quadrennial moment as the epicenter of the universe. And in 10 months, voters will vent their spleens — if they still are as splenetic as they now claim to be — in congressional elections. Some numbers define the political landscape.
In an October poll, 60 percent favored voting out of office every congressional incumbent. The poll was taken just 11 months after voters reelected 90 percent of House and 91 percent of Senate incumbents. Democrats are more likely to lose control of the Senate than gain control of the House. Ninety-three percent of Republican House members represent districts Mitt Romney carried, 96 percent of Democratic members represent districts Barack Obama carried. Since the mid-19th-century emergence of the current two-party competition, no party holding the presidency has ever won control of the House in a midterm election.
Larry Sabato and Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics note that, since the Civil War, the average turnout in presidential elections has been 63 percent and in midterms 48 percent. The decline comes mostly from the party holding the presidency, and analyst Charlie Cook says three crucial components of Obama’s coalition — unmarried women, minorities (more than 40 percent of Obama’s 2012 vote) and young people — are especially prone to skipping midterms. In the seven midterms since 1984, voters younger than 30 averaged 13 percent of the midterm vote, down from 19 percent during presidential years.
Furthermore, for House elections much of the Democratic vote is inefficiently concentrated in and around large cities. Obama won 80 percent or more in 27 districts; Romney did so in only one. That is why in 2012, Democratic House candidates got about 1.4 million more votes than Republican candidates but did not win control of the House.
Today the 30 Republican governors — four short of the all-time GOP high of 34 in the 1920s — represent 315 electoral votes. Republicans have a 52 percent majority of state legislative seats. After the 2012 elections, Republicans controlled the governorships and legislatures in 25 states with 53 percent of the nation’s population; Democrats had unified control of 13 states with 30 percent of the population.
Since the emergence of the Republican Party, only two Democratic presidents, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, have been followed by Democrats, and both FDR and JFK died in office, so their successors ran as incumbents. But Republicans have not decisively won a presidential election since 1988. Since then, no Republican nominee has won more than 50.8 percent of the vote. In the six elections from 1992 to 2012, Republicans averaged 211 electoral votes, Democrats 327. Republicans lost the popular vote in five of these elections, and in the sixth, 2004, George W. Bush’s margin was the smallest ever for a reelection.
In 2012, Obama became the first president since Ronald Reagan to win two popular-vote majorities, but Obama got 3.6 million fewer votes than in 2008, a 5 percent decline. (The prior reelected president, Bush, got 11.6 million more votes in 2004 than in 2000.) Except for a small gain among those age 30 to 39, Obama lost ground among every age cohort. And in 2012, Republicans improved the share of votes they got in 2008 from men (in 2012 Obama became the first person to win a presidential election while losing the male vote by seven points), whites, young voters and Jews. And independents: John McCain lost them 44 to 52 but Romney won them 50 to 45. And by September 2013, independents were leaning Republican by 18 points, above even the 14-point advantage Republicans had in 2010.
In three of the most intensely contested states in 2012, Florida, Virginia and Ohio, Obama’s victory margins averaged 2.6 points. But even if he had lost all three he would have still won with 272 electoral votes. Analyst Jeffrey Bell calculates this:
“Of the 12 ‘battleground’ states, Obama won 11 — eight of them by a margin of more than 5 percentage points. Remarkably, this meant that if there had been a uniform 5 point swing toward the Republicans in the national popular vote margin — that is, had Romney won the popular vote by 1.1 percentage points instead of losing it by 3.9 — Obama would still have prevailed in the Electoral College, winning 23 states and 272 electoral votes.”
These numbers suggest that the great political prizes can be won by either party. There will be more numbers to contemplate by the time the 1 percent of Americans who live in Iowa are heard from.