Twelve years ago, I was the first in the national press to write that the Republicans had a serious chance to win a majority of seats in the House. That article appeared in the issue of U.S. News that hit the newsstands on July 11, 1994, less than four months before the election.
That's how late it was in the cycle before anyone except Newt Gingrich and his acolytes took seriously the possibility that the Republicans would win control for the first time in 40 years.
In this cycle, many reporters have been contemplating the possibility that Democrats will take the House back this November. That's partly because most reporters are Democrats and find that result congenial. More importantly, Democrats can take control with a net gain of only 15 seats this year, while Republicans needed 40 in 1994 (and got 52). It's always easier to see how a party can gain 15 seats than 40 -- although 1994 was the only time in the past 20 years that any party gained more than 10.
Democrats' chances of taking those 15 seats are not very good -- if the voting patterns and political contours that have held steady since the 1995-96 budget showdown continue to prevail. Ordinarily in a decade we see a shift in these patterns. Some geographic regions or demographic groups move to one party or the other, or the whole electorate does.
But that hasn't happened in the past 10 years. In the five House elections starting in 1996, Republicans have won between 49 percent and 51 percent of the popular votes, Democrats between 46 percent and 48.5 percent of the popular votes. Nor have regional patterns changed much. From 1990 to 1996, the nation's largest metro areas became more Democratic, while rural areas and the South became more Republican.
Since then, things have stayed about the same. And this is regardless of whatever problems were facing party leaders like Bill Clinton, Gingrich and George W. Bush.
The redistricting that followed the 2000 census was based on those same voting patterns. That's why so many safe seats resulted from Republican gerrymanders in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Texas; Democratic gerrymanders in North Carolina and Maryland; and bipartisan incumbent-protection gerrymanders in New York, California, Illinois and Ohio. If the political contours should shift, as they did in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, then some seats designed to be safe will become marginal, and some will shift to the other side.
That's what Democrats hope is happening this year.