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Lessons from the 2012 House elections

As the House meets for its lame-duck session this week, we are reminded that the short two-year cycle of House races has these legislators always looking over their shoulders at public opinion, just as the framers= intended. Lessons from the 2012 election tell us a lot about 2014. Notably, the lack of ticket-splitting in 2012 suggests that the parties' images could play a large role in determining control in 2014. Here is a look:

Democrats have gained either seven or eight seats, depending upon unsettled races, in the 2012 elections. Heading into 2014, Republicans hold a 33 to 35 seat margin in the next Congress. While it is difficult, at least historically, for a president's party to gain seats in a mid-term election, and the odds favor a Republican retention, 30 or 31 Republicans were elected by a margin of 10 percent or less this year - Democrats won 33-34 races by 10 percent or less. Accordingly, there are a sufficient number of marginal races to fuel some uncertainty regarding the 2014 outcome.

Most of the incumbents who lost this year were victims of congressional redistricting. The gains scored by both parties - Democrats in Illinois, Florida, and California gained 12 seats and Republicans in North Carolina gained seats and scattered gains in other states - were generated by district gerrymandered maps, rather than voter sentiment. Retrospectively, it appears that the parties fought redistricting to a deadlock. Republican maps in some states successfully held up as something of an insurance policy for local House candidates in states such as Pennsylvania, a two-seat gain. And Democrats took only minor losses in Ohio, Michigan and there was a minor loss of one Democratic seat in Missouri, so neither party was badly damaged by the process. All told, redistricting kept many incumbents in the fight and didn't really favor either party.

Overall, the Democratic minority of 200 or 201 seats is one of the largest in recent political history for either party. Republicans held 205 seats in 2006, but their ranks were depleted to 184 in 2008. Democrats held 193 seats headed into the 2012 election. When Democrats tried to regain the House in 1996, and most observers thought that was a plausible result, they started at the 204 level, close to the breakdown headed into 2014.

The real story of the House elections this year was the unprecedented level of straight ticket voting. It has been reported that exit polls reveal that both Obama and House Democrats held a 50 to 48 percent margin. When all House votes are tallied, the breakdown will be closer to 49-49, with perhaps an 0.5 percent advantage to the Democrats. So they did win the popular vote, while failing to gain the House. Furthermore, Obama's margin will end up closer to three percent than two percent.

An analysis of key demographic groups also show remarkable convergence between Presidential and House voting. Romney won 52 percent of the male vote compared to 53 percent for House Republicans. Females cast an identical 55 percent for House Democrats and President Obama. House Democrats won 91 percent of the African-American vote compared to 93 percent for the president. It is possible that the small two percent difference may have impacted the close Republican victory in Florida 10 (Orange County) and a couple of other races. Mr. Obama did outpace House Democrats by a scant three percent among Hispanic voters. Most male and female African-American and Hispanic voters voted solidly Democratic.

Among age groups, 19 percent of the electorate was comprised of 18-29 year old voters. Exit polls reveal that this age group voted 60 to 37 percent for both House Democrats and President Obama. If the 18-24 vote is isolated, House Democrats actually won 1 percent more of the vote than the President. At the other end of the age spectrum, Romney/Obama and the House results were identical: 56 percent Republican and 44 percent Democratic.

It appears as if white voters under 30 where slightly more supportive of Mitt Romney than House Republicans, although the three percent margin is statistically not significant: 51 percent for Mitt Romney and 48 percent for House Republicans.

With respect to ideology a similar breakdown occurred; Liberals 86 to 11 percent for Obama and 86 to 12 percent for House Democrats; conservatives 82 to 17 percent for Romney and 82 to 16 percent for House Republicans. Among the crucial 40 percent of the electorate identified as moderate - Mr. Obama won by 56 to 41 percent and House Democrats by a 57 to 41 percent margin. Predictably, the partisan division is almost identical: Democrats voted 94 to 6 for House Democrats, and a slightly less overwhelming 92 to 7 for Mr. Obama. Republicans voted 93 to six for Mitt Romney and 94 to 5 for House Republicans. Among independents, House Republicans won by seven percent and Mitt Romney by five percent. Could that have made a difference in the closest House races - yes it is conceivable.

With respect to education groups, again we find symmetry, although slight divergences are discernible: High school graduates preferred House Democrats by six percent and Mr. Obama by three percent. Where did this occur? Perhaps in West Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana, states that voted strongly for Mitt Romney, and failed to produce any change in House races. So it was likely immaterial.

Sometimes we look at the some college cohort in the electorate, comprising 29 percent of the national vote. Obama won this group by one percent and House Republicans by two percent - important if statistically significant, but we can't be sure. Again, House Republicans performed slightly better than Romney, amassing a six percent margin compared to four percent for the presidential standard bearer. College graduates now represent the same share of the electorate as voters who attended college without a four-year degree. Post graduates now account for 17 percent of the electorate and voted plus-13 for Obama and plus-12 for House Democrats. For the first time in presidential electoral history, the percentage of college graduates in the electorate is inching toward the 50 percent level. In the mid-term election that vote might reach 50 percent.

Twenty-eight percent of the electorate was comprised of voters earning more than $100,000, and we observe a small dichotomy between House Democrats who lost by 14 percent compared to Obama/Romney where the Republican advantage was 10 percent.

When voter issue concerns are incorporated, we see some divergences in voter sentiment, not large. Voters believing abortion should be legal in all cases (60 percent of the electorate) supported President Obama by a 36 percent margin compared to a 30 percent margin for House Democrats. On the other hand, voters who believe abortion should be illegal in all cases (38 percent of the electorate), supported Mitt Romney by 56 percent compared to a 51 percent margin for House Republicans. When voters were asked which economic problem was the most important problem - housing, unemployment, the economy in general or health care, again the answers were remarkably similar between presidential and U.S. House voting preferences. Slightly more voters concerned with health care voted for President Obama than House Democrats (51 percent to 48 percent), 2 percent more voters believing unemployment is the most important problem voted for House Democrats as opposed to President Obama, suggesting that the President may have been given some of the blame for the high unemployment rate - 7.9 percent.

We conclude that there was less ticket-splitting this year than in past presidential elections. A trend that may have begun in 2008. Turnout is crucial in close elections. And with a mid-term election on the horizon, where turnout differentials are wider from election to election, both parties need to take heed.

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