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Parallels to 1994 Are Superficial, but Results May be the Same

It’s not as though one should expect honesty and integrity from Karl Rove, but it’s disappointing when his duplicity involves you personally. In a memo at his website,, he carelessly misrepresents my arguments about the Democrats’ 2010 electoral picture, while going on to demonstrate a superficial understanding about the underlying dynamics of the race.

Here’s what Rove said that I said:

On the blog, Democratic booster Nate Silver recently suggested the 2010 midterms won’t produce an anti-Democratic swing of the same magnitude of 1994 because “unlike in 1994, the GOP remains quite unpopular.”

And here’s what I actually said:

It’s not that I’m at all optimistic about the Democrats’ electoral fortunes in 2010. The general consensus that they’ll lose between 25 and 35 House seats strikes me as generous, for instance. I’d put the modal number at somewhere in the low 40s instead, although with a very wide range from as few as 20 Republican pickups to as many as 60. […]

Clearly, 2010 will be to some greater or lesser extent an anti-Democratic year. The question is to what extent it might also be an anti-incumbent year […] Unlike in 1994, the GOP remains quite strongly unpopular. Also as compared with 1994, the Republicans are less cohesive, and that could result in their nominating a sub-optimal candidate in Kentucky, New Hampshire, Florida or Arizona.

It’s pretty rich to be characterized as a “Democratic booster” for having written an article in which I argued that (i) the general consensus on the number of seats that the Democrats will lose in the House is too optimistic (ii) my best guess would be for a loss in the low 40s instead, and possibly as high as 60, which would eclipse the Democrats’ 54-seat loss in 1994.

What I do think, however, is that while the results might wind up being pretty similar to 1994, the parameters driving those results are rather different, in much the same way that losing a football game by two touchdowns can be very different between a 14-0 shutout and a 45-31 shootout.

Rove cites a series of polling data to make the case that the electoral cycles are similar. Obama’s approval ratings are similar to where Bill Clinton’s were in February of 1994, Rove points out, as is the “right track/wrong track” number and Congressional job approval.

As John Sides demonstrates, however, all of these numbers — Presidential approval, Congressional approval, right track/wrong track — tend to be highly correlated with one another. So while it looks like Rove has a whole bounty of statistical evidence to make his case, the measures he’s citing are largely redundant with one another. And as I pointed out in the original piece, there’s one number which is quite different from 1994. That is the popularity of the opposition party. According to Rove’s memo, the Republicans polled at a +30 net favorability in 1994. Today, they’re at a zero in the poll that Rove cites, and underwater in many other surveys. The actions that George W. Bush undertook under Rove’s guidance did a lot of long-term damage to the Republican brand, and that hasn’t really been repaired yet. It’s been mostly a matter of the Democrats falling back down to earth.

Moreover, Rove is addressing the symptom rather than the cause. As Sides also points out, these various measures of approval are strongly correlated not just with one another, but also with perceptions about the economy, which drives them all in tandem. The economy — or at least the jobs picture — is really, really terrible right now, much worse than it was at a comparable point in 1994 by which time Bill Clinton had already started to generate hundreds of thousands of new jobs each month.

If you had the 2010 economy but the 1994 Republican Party, we wouldn’t be talking about a 40 seat loss but — lord knows, a 70 or 80 seat loss. (A 40-seat loss seems enormous, but by historical standards it’s fairly commonplace; the Republicans lost 101 seats in 1932 after the Great Depression kicked in.) On the other hand, if the Republican Party were as unpopular as it actually today is but we had 1994’s economy rather than 2010’s, the Democrats would probably only lose a minimal number of seats if they lost any at all.

Now, I certainly don’t think that 100 percent of the Democrats’ problems can be pinned on th economy — we’ll explore some of the other causes in a separate piece that will go up over the weekend or on Monday. But what that piece will show is that there are as many dissimilarities to 1994 as there are parallels, at least if one has the presence of mind to step back from the numbers and explore the root causes.

As for Rove, I don’t know why he’s decided to pick at strawmen rather than engaging my actual arguments. But if he wants to debate an actual person, I’d be game for a throwdown any time — perhaps we can arrange for something on Sheppard Smith’s show, or a two-part series between O’Reilly and Maddow.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.