Fields of Opportunity: Cook PVI, Wave Elections, and Recent Results

The elections of 2006 and 2008 bore many of the aspects of the “party system” changes that happen every 36 to 40 years in American electoral politics.  There was a change in electoral control (in the House, Senate, and White House) and two strong gains by one party in consecutive elections.

Of course the classic change election occurred in 1932.  After gaining 50 House seats in 1930, Democrats swept the White House and added 97 more in 1932.  And they kept adding to both the Senate and House numbers although at a lesser rate in the House, in both 1934 and 1936.  That, of course begs us to ask a key question: how long do waves last.  If you look at the waves around the election of 1800, 1860, and 1932 the answer is clear and surprising.  Waves seem to last for four elections.  In the case of 1860, much of the strength came with the tail after Lincoln and the war were clearly successful.

With a Senate class that is Republican heavy and untouched, the wave would seem to have a minimum of one more act and another six or eight Senate seats to go.  What about the House?

Despite a lot of talk about very Republican districts turning blue, most of the gains in both 2006 and 2008 have come from either Democratic or weak Republican districts won by Democrats.  In 2006, 17 of the 30 seats that were gained had a Cook PVi of R+3 or less aand 24 had a Cook PVI of R+7 or less.  In 2008, 15 seats won by Democrats had a Cook PVI of R+3 or less and 21 had a Cook PVI of R+7 or less.

That raises several issues.  How many of these field of opportunity remain to be plucked?  Well, 26 House seats still held by Republicans are in the prime R+3 or less category.  Why am I harping on R+3?  Above that point, Republicans hold a majority of seats.  Up to R+3, we hold the edge.

Over 95% of House seats with a Democratic PVI are held by Democrats.  The number of these seats held by Republicans has been sharply falling from (if my calculation is right) 24 to 15 to 9 in just two quick elections.  Some of those nine have been hard fought continued battlefields that Democrats keep losing (or Republicans keep winning): IL-10 (Mark Kirk vs. Dan Fields), WA-8 (Dave Reichert vs. Darcy Burner), and to a lesser extent PA-6, PA-15 and IA-4 fall under this category.  DE-At Large (D+7), NY-3 ((D+2), FL-10 (D+1), and NJ-2 (D+4) have been largely passed over.  Yes, we “expect” that Bill Young or Mike Castle might retire sometime but they need to be challenged.  As things stand, we only have one more crack at them under the present districts.  In most of these districts, the Republican has had his weakest showing in an off-year election rather than a Presidential election year: DE-At Large, 2006 (57%), IL-10 2006 (53%), IA-4 2002 (55%), NY-3 2006 (56%), PA-6 2006 and 2002 (51-49, also 2004 and only 52-48 in 2008), WA-8 2006 (51-49).FL-10 actually was weakest this year at 61-39 when Bob Hack was a credible opponent (local mayor) in a high turnout year.

R 0 to R+3 districts are represented by 25 Democrats and just 17 Democrats.  We have picked up 17 of these seats in the last 2 election cycles.  They are, in fact turning blue.  Part of this is the switch over in many traditional suburban districts from Republican to Democratic.  These districts are more ethnically and culturally diverse and educated professionals in many fields trend at least mildly Democratic (teachers, nurses, lawyers, creative types).

It may have been a once in a lifetime thing but in California, Democrats gained 5 House seats in 2000 that had been slowly trtending Democratic.  There were eight Republican House seats IIRC in California alone that were won with under 60% of the vote.

The number of Republican seats in the R+4 to R+7 range is way, way too high due to gerrymanders in many states (Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Virginia in particular.  There are 63 seats with a PVI of R+4 through R+7 (25 held by Democrats) vs. only 31 seat that are D+4 through D+7 (28 held by Democrats)  These seats are also opportunities.

As for the long shots with Cook PVIs over R+7, well we hold 10 of them.  And that’s more seats than the Republicans hold in the D+0 to D+7 range (or all D ranges) at nine.