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Closer than Close

From the November 4, 2002 Dallas Morning News: No matter who comes out on top, Congress will be almost evenly split after the election.

11:00 PM, Nov 4, 2002 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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FROM MAINE TO CALIFORNIA, the midterm elections surely will test the candidates. But they also will test history, for history supports the belief--held by Democrats--that they will win both houses of Congress.

Today, Republicans hold 223 of 435 House seats. In the Senate this past year, there were 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and a party of one, James Jeffords, whose defection from the GOP shifted control of that chamber to the Democrats.

Tuesday contains the four possibilities of all midterms: The House goes Republican, the Senate Democratic. The House goes Democratic, the Senate Republican. Both houses go Republican. Both go Democratic.

But the safest prediction isn't the last--that both houses will go Democratic--but that the elections will be very close. The reasons are apparent. Terrorism and the necessity to war against it have made ordinary politics less compelling. Not that they were compelling previously. They were stalemated. (See the 2000 elections.) No big issues are in play this year. Mostly tactical campaigns have been waged.

Writing in the fall issue of Hoover Digest, political scientists David Brady and Jeremy Pope report the history that has fed Democratic hopes. Since 1860, with only two exceptions--1934 and 1998--the party of the sitting president has lost seats in midterm elections. If you look at the period since the end of World War II and consider only a president's first midterm elections--which is what George W. Bush will enjoy or endure on Tuesday--the president's party has lost an average of 26 seats.

Brady and Pope break down the numbers. The three most recent Democratic presidents--Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton--averaged a loss of 29 seats in the first midterms of their tenures. The four most recent Republican presidents--Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and the elder George Bush--averaged a loss of 17 seats.

Those numbers led Democrats earlier this year to predict large gains that would strengthen their tenuous grip on the Senate and give them control of the House. Large Democratic gains aren't necessary for those outcomes, however. Small ones will suffice.

Consider a fact noticed by Brady and Pope: that "the smallest first-term losses" for an incumbent president "were [John F.] Kennedy in 1962 and [George H.W.] Bush in 1990--both losing fewer than 10 seats." George W. Bush thus can outperform history--he can lose not even one Senate seat and only six House seats--and still face a Democratic House and Senate in January

If things are that close, however, they easily could move in ways frustrating to Democrats. If House Republicans lose just five seats--as they did in the 1998 midterms--they would retain control by a single vote. If Senate Republicans, meanwhile, netted one seat, they would have 50 seats but effective control of the Senate because of the vice president's vote. In sum, the GOP could lose five seats in the House, gain one in the Senate and have what Bush ardently is campaigning for--Republican control of both houses.

Brady and Pope won't be surprised if the 2002 elections are even closer--as they surmise they might be--than those four years ago. They have devised an approach to predicting elections whose virtue is that it yields the same results for all elections since World War II. Their approach centers on "vulnerable seats" and whether there is "a political trend" toward or against a party that could affect the election results by tipping close races--as happened in 1978 (for Republicans) and 1982 (for Democrats).

Brady and Pope say Democrats could win as many as 224 House seats and Republicans as many as 227. But only if there is a partisan trend for Democrats in the first case or for Republicans in the second. And they don't see a trend either way, because they say (rightly) neither party has a set of issues likely to move voters nationwide. As for the Senate, Brady and Pope say the winner will have only a one- or two-seat advantage.

They don't say which party will prevail in each house or how. So I will venture the following:

Republicans pick up Missouri and South Dakota but lose Arkansas and New Hampshire, thus leaving the Senate where it is now. Republicans, meanwhile, lose three House seats and thus retain control. Status will prevail. And because politics is inevitably an argument about the future, the 2004 election will begin. It isn't too early to hope for an election about big ideas and new directions.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.