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A New Contract with America?

It won’t matter much in November, but it could help afterwards.

Sep 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 02 • By JAY COST
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With the midterm elections less than two months away, the prospects for a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives are very good. But could they be better? Shouldn’t the party put forward a positive agenda, akin to 1994’s Contract with America, if it wants to repeat the sweeping victories it enjoyed that year?

A New Contract with America?

Newt Gingrich addressing GOP Congressional candidates, September 1994


Probably not. But there is still a strong case to be made for a new contract.

The Contract with America was unique in the history of electioneering—a written, concise statement signed by more than 300 party candidates that outlined a 10-point reform agenda. Nothing like that has happened before or since, and yet one party or another has been winning blowout elections periodically for nearly 200 years. In fact, opposition parties tend to be downright ambiguous about their plans, intentionally so. When the electorate is inclined to vote for you, it can be risky to give it something specific, as the details might actually alienate some swing voters. There is no better example of such strategic ambiguity than Franklin Roosevelt’s 1932 campaign, which was full of vague and even conflicting promises. Yet that did not stop him from trouncing Herbert Hoover and bringing more than 300 House Democrats into office on his coattails.

Generally speaking, midterm congressional elections hinge on evaluations of the president. If voters think he is doing a bad job, they are going to be heavily predisposed to the opposition, which will thus enjoy a low threshold for victory. Oftentimes, it is sufficient for the opposition to say nothing more than, “Vote for us because we’ll oppose the president.” The 1994 midterm was no exception. That year, the exit polls indicated that 80 percent of all voters who disapproved of President Clinton voted Republican while 80 percent of all voters who approved of him voted Democratic. In other words, 1994, like most midterms, came down to the president, not anything the GOP did.

This assertion might come as a bit of a surprise. After all, that election shocked just about everybody when it happened. Few pundits expected the GOP to pick up enough seats to win the House, let alone the 52 the Republicans actually did win. What’s more, political science models of electoral outcomes were quite wide of the mark that year. So doesn’t this unprecedented outcome require some unprecedented cause, like the Contract with America?

Not really. In retrospect, the “Republican Revolution” has come to look quite typical. The 1994 midterms resulted in 150 Republican-held seats in the north and west. By historical standards, this was consistent with previous good Republican cycles, like 1966 and 1980. The position of Clinton in 1994 was indeed similar to that of Lyndon Johnson in 1966 and Jimmy Carter in 1980 in that all three were under 50 percent job approval and had high disapproval ratings. So it’s no surprise that, in the north and west, the GOP would bounce back to that level.

But the GOP won more seats nationwide in 1994 than in 1966 and 1980, thanks to unprecedented gains in the south. Republicans won just 23 southern seats in 1966 and 39 seats in 1980, but in 1994 they pulled in a whopping 64 southern seats, which gave the party a regional majority for the first time since 1874. It’s possible that the Contract with America had something to do with the GOP’s smashing success in the south, but 1994 has since turned out to be a step along the way in a decades-long march toward Republican dominance of Dixie, so that by 2004 the GOP would take better than three-fifths of all southern House seats. Even in the Republican defeat in 2006, the GOP still won more southern seats than it did after the 1994 midterm.

In other words, we do not really need the Contract with America to explain the 1994 midterm. Instead, most of the results can be accounted for by combining a typical wave election in the north and west with the ongoing southern realignment.

Beyond that, the substance of the Contract with America suggests that it probably did not pack much of an electoral punch. After all, the contract was not so much a break with the Republican past as it was an updating of the core GOP message: a balanced budget, pro-growth and pro-family tax cuts, welfare and entitlement reform, tough crime laws, and tort reform. The core philosophy behind the contract’s specific proposals has connected Republicans dating back to William McKinley in 1896. The only twist on the Republican message was a call for reforms of the governing process—items like term limits, the end of budgetary gimmicks, and open committee hearings. Generally speaking, voters were not learning anything new about the Republican party from the contract so much as they were being reminded of why they had backed the GOP in years past.

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