Why are Republicans so freaked out?
At this point, they have a good chance — perhaps around 50–50 — of picking up enough seats to take the Senate, while Democrats’ chances of picking up the 17 seats they need to regain control of the House look considerably smaller than that. And yet, as one Politico story put it, “it is almost impossible to find an establishment Republican in town who’s not downright morose about the 2013 that has been and is about to be.”
Politico suggests the reason for the glumness is fear about the political fallout from the GOP’s unyielding, nihilistic approach to governance on issues like Obamacare and the debt ceiling. That problem may be far worse than they imagine. A close scrutiny of the data reveals several demographic weak points that the current wave of Republican crazy could activate, leading to the outcome they dread the most: Democratic control of both houses of Congress.
Start with minorities. It’s not well-known, but Republicans in 2010 benefited not only from relatively low minority turnout (standard for an off-year election) but also from relatively low minority support for Democratic candidates. Emphasis here is on the relative: minority support for House Democrats in 2010 was 73–25 — high, but below the 77–22 margin that minorities averaged in the three off-year elections that preceded 2010. If minorities snap back to 77–22 Democratic support as a consequence of Republican misbehavior, and the expected 2 percentage point increase in the share of minority voters from population trends emerges, then the Republican 6.8 percentage point margin in 2010 will be immediately sliced in half. And if the minority vote goes even stronger for the Democrats, reaching 2012 levels, that would eliminate about three-quarters of the Republicans’ 2010 advantage all on its own.
Another demographic problem for the GOP comes from a more surprising quarter: seniors. As Erica Seifert of Democracy Corps noted in a recent memo:
There’s something going on with seniors: It is now strikingly clear that they have turned sharply against the GOP. This is apparent in seniors’ party affiliation and vote intention, in their views on the Republican Party and its leaders, and in their surprising positions on jobs, health care, retirement security, investment economics, and the other big issues that will likely define the 2014 midterm elections.
We first noticed a shift among seniors early in the summer of 2011, as Paul Ryan’s plan to privatize Medicare became widely known (and despised) among those at or nearing retirement. Since then, the Republican Party has come to be defined by much more than its desire to dismantle Medicare. To voters from the center right to the far left, the GOP is now defined by resistance, intolerance, intransigence, and economics that would make even the Robber Barons blush. We have seen other voters pull back from the GOP, but among no group has this shift been as sharp as it is among senior citizens.
It is therefore quite plausible that the GOP will benefit far less from senior support in 2014 than in 2010. If the senior share of voters returns to normal levels (19 percent) and the Republican margin among this group drops to its post-2000 average (6 points, about where it is right now in the Democracy Corps polls) that would take care of the rest of the GOP margin from 2010, getting the Democrats slightly past the break-even point in the popular vote.
Of course, given the well-known GOP advantage in translating seats to votes, Democrats probably need to do substantially better than breaking even to attain a majority in the House. That won’t be easy, but there are certainly potential avenues to shift the 2014 House vote even farther in Democrats’ direction. There is the youth vote, for example, which was relatively poor for the Democrats in 2010 (55–42) and could certainly improve, as well as possibly turn out in larger numbers. The latter could also be true of the minority vote, whose projected 2 point increase in voter share, is due solely to population increase. If relative minority turnout is better in 2014 than 2010, then there will be an even larger increase in minority vote share over 2010, pushing the Democrats’ margin farther toward what they need to take the House.
Make no mistake about it: the Democrats face an uphill climb. But the possibilities outlined above inch closer to reality every day the GOP continues its coordinated campaign to alienate anyone interested in functional governance.