The hardest numbers

Posted: Apr 11, 2005 12:00 AM

Congressional Republicans have some reason to feel under siege. Public opinion polls show that congressional action in the Terri Schiavo case was unpopular. George W. Bush's job ratings have dipped, and Congress' job rating is lower. Many polls show that Bush's proposal for personal retirement accounts in Social Security is unpopular, too. The Washington Post and the New York Times have been hammering away at House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Despite good economic numbers, most voters feel the economy is in trouble and the nation is on the wrong track.

 But Republicans should pause before they panic. Polls on unfamiliar issues are notoriously volatile, and results can shift wildly when questions are worded slightly differently.

 When pollster John Zogby asked, "If a disabled person is not terminally ill, not in a coma and not being kept alive on life support, and they have no written directive, should or should they not be denied food and water?" Seventy-nine percent said they should not be denied, and 9 percent said they should.

 When Fox News pollster John Gorman asked, "Do you favor or oppose giving individuals the choice to invest a portion of their Social Security contributions in stocks or mutual funds?" Sixty percent said yes, and 28 percent said no. Both Zogby and Gorman, by the way, are Democrats. So the polls hyped by the mainstream media are not necessarily the final word on opinion.

 In any case, when you're talking political numbers, you should remember that some numbers are harder than others. And the hardest numbers in politics are election results. Most journalists and politicians don't spend much time looking at them. They should. Because the 2004 presidential election results tell us that Republicans are in even stronger shape than their 55-45 and 232-203 Senate and House margins suggest.

 Start with the Senate. George W. Bush carried 31 states that elect 62 senators. There are nine Republican senators from Kerry states and 16 Democratic senators from Bush states. Many of these are from states that were close in the presidential election. But there are 11 Democrats and only three Republicans from states where their presidential nominee got less than 47 percent of the vote. There are more Democrats with political incentives to vote with Bush than there are Republicans with incentives to vote against him.

 As for the House, we now know which presidential candidate carried each of the 435 congressional districts, thanks to Polidata, which crunched the numbers for National Journal and the Almanac of American Politics (of which I am co-author). These numbers surprised even some political pros. Bush carried 255 districts and John Kerry only 180. In all, 41 Democrats represent Bush districts and 18 Republicans represent Kerry districts. Eliminating the districts where the House member's presidential candidate won 47 percent or more, we find only five Republicans in strong Kerry districts but 30 Democrats in strong Bush districts.

 Why did Bush carry 59 percent of the districts while winning 51 percent of the popular vote? One reason is that winners usually carry a disproportionate share of districts. Another is gerrymandering, which favored Republicans this cycle. One more is the Voting Rights Act, which encourages concentrations of blacks and Hispanics in a few districts that Democrats usually carry heavily, while losing adjacent seats.

 The implications? In the long run, Republicans are well positioned to increase their numbers in both the Senate and the House. Some Democrats hold seats because of personal popularity or moderate voting records. But when they retire, Republicans may well succeed them. In the short run, very few Republicans run great political risks by supporting Bush. Significantly more Democrats run great political risks by opposing him. Obstruction doesn't work well for Democrats in Bush seats: Just ask former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. And at the moment, on Social Security, as Democrats Stan Greenberg and James Carville wrote last month, "Voters are looking for reform, change and new ideas, but Democrats seem stuck in concrete."

 Of course, the 2004 election figures are not etched in stone. The balance between the parties can change. But it hasn't changed much since 1996, and recent movement has been toward Republicans. Or so the hard numbers say.