New Political Alignment or National Elections

Changes in the U.S. House don't represent a new political alignment, but a confirmation of existing political alignments.The huge gains this election by Republicans in the U.S. House don't represent a new political alignment, but rather reflect a move toward national elections for Congress based on shifting political coalitions. That's the view of Nate Silver, writing in his blog "FiveThirtyEight."

"The 1980 election," Silver said, "arguably marked the beginning of a long-term shift toward Republicans in America's suburbs, with Jimmy Carter's share of the suburban vote dropping from 53 percent in 1976 to 37 percent in 1980."

"Likewise, in 1994," Silver continued, "the shift against Democrats was particularly sharp in the South: 19 of the 52 representatives which they lost having come from that part of the country."

"The 2010 elections, by contrast," he said, "were remarkable for their orderliness – and they tend to reinforce, to an almost uncanny degree, existing political coalitions."

Silver, a master of data, notes Republicans picked up 55 House seats in districts that President Obama won in 2008, but they are mostly in places where Obama only managed a narrow majority. The GOP will hold only 14 seats (up from eight) in which Obama racked up 55 percent or more of the vote in 2008.

Explains Silver: "Rather than a realigning election, 2010 served as more of an aligning election: congressional districts behaved less independently from one another, and incumbency status mattered less. Instead, they hewed tightly to national trends and the overall partisanship of each district. Most of the incumbent congressmen whose districts had been outliers before (mainly Democrats such as Congressman Gene Taylor, whose district gave just 31 percent of its vote to Barack Obama, but also a couple of Republicans such as Congressman Joseph Cao) were forced into early retirement."

Silver calls this good long-term news for Democrats. He says Democrats only have to defend 12 House seats in 2012 in which Obama won a minority of votes. They have many more districts to compete for that are now held by Republicans, but with a willingness to vote for Obama.

On the other hand, Silver says an improving economy may ease voter angst and make it easier for incumbents, including Republicans elected this November, to win re-election in 2012, thus preserving GOP gains this year.

While Silver doesn't speculate, the trend toward national elections for Congress could be the byproduct of more people identifying themselves as political independents. They don't hold party loyalty and will vote for the candidate based on a combination of issues and ideology.