Wednesday, February 06, 2002

Polling the Mid-term Elections

The general rule in mid-term elections is that the party "out of power" in the White House gains between 10-20 seats in the House and one or two in the US Senate elections. The simplest way to predict the outcome of any midterm election used to be to read the Gallup Poll . Gallup regularly asks a question that tracks "Congressional preference" by asking registered voters (and a subset of likely voters) whether they intend to vote for the Republican or Democratic candidate for Congress in the upcoming election.

For the moment, voters are telling Gallup (and other polling organizations) that they are more likely to vote for Republican Congressional candidates than Democratic candidates. Not surprisingly, many political pundits are now saying that the Republicans stand a fairly good chance of retaining control of the House and have a shot at regaining control of the Senate.

I think the outcome of this year's Senate elections is impossible to predict. But the growing consensus that the GOP will retain control of the House strikes me as misguided. Why? Because computer technology and software have dramatically altered the terrain of Congressional elections. I'm not sure the Gallup Congressional preference question is even relevant anymore, except in the most general sense.

When I first starting covering Congressional elections back in 1978 as a researcher at the NBC News Election Unit, there were roughly 85 Congressional races that year that were seriously "contested." Since then, there have been three redistrictings (1980, 1990 and 2000) that have redrawn the maps of each Congressional district in every state. And the last two redistrictings were powered by mapping software and computer-modeling technology that rendered just under 400 districts safely Republican or safely Democratic. There are barely 40 Congressional districts left that can be fairly described as "contested."

Forty Congressional districts is not that many. If one assumes that both parties will be able to raise at least $100 million each for the express purpose of helping their nominees in those 40 districts, then the math tells us that both nominees will begin their general election campaigns with $2.5 million of financial support. By the 1st of October, ten "contested" districts will probably be defunded by the GOP and ten districts will probably be written off by the Democrats. So control of the Congress will boil down to the outcomes in 20 districts. And the nominees in those districts will get yet more money to help their campaigns.

We don't know (yet) which districts will be the "final 20." Until we know, it's probably impossible to predict whether Dennis Hastert or Richard Gephardt is the next Speaker of the House.