Strategies for Electoral Success

Another blog post, another look at the 1994 and 2006 elections. In this post, I’m going to be examining two different aspects of each election: the strategy used by the victorious party and the accuracy of the predictions made by pundits after each election. No party hoping to win a large number of congressional and senate seats walks into an election without a plan; to achieve an electoral victory, party leaders need to have a detailed strategy about how to attract voters. In regard to the second aspect I’m looking at, there is nothing political pundits and researchers love more than predicting the implications of an important event. They make grand predictions about what an election means for the coming years. My goal was to determine which predictions actually turned out to be accurate.

I’m going to start off by looking at party strategy. In 1994, the Republicans had a clear plan to take out Democrats: nationalize local races. Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill was famous for saying “all politics is local,” but Newt Gingrich, the mastermind behind the 1994 victory, didn’t agree. Before the 1994 election, Gingrich was a rising star in the Republican Party and a pioneer who encouraged Republicans to be confrontational towards the Democratic majority after decades of being submissive. Gingrich believed that if Republican challengers could make their races about national issues and tie Democratic incumbents to the failed policies of the Clinton administration, then incumbents in swing districts across the country would be voted out of office.

Gingrich didn’t want Republican candidates just to attack Democratic policies; he wanted them to present policy alternatives that would attract voters. With this idea in mind, Gingrich and other top Republicans drafted the “Contract with America.” This Contract laid out the main policy proposals of the Republican Party, which included major cuts in income taxes, reductions in spending on welfare programs, and a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. These proposals were carefully chosen; they had to be in line with Republican values, but also receive support from a majority of Americans. Oddly enough, a poll taken days before the election showed that 71% of respondents had never heard of the Contract with America. The document still served a purpose, however, because it gave challengers specific proposals to present in their districts. The ability to offer viable policy alternatives attracted voters to Republican challengers and ultimately helped them win.

The Republican strategy for the 1994 election also included finding quality challengers. Republicans had long been accused of putting up less-than-qualified challengers against Democrats, almost ensuring the failure of the challengers. In 1994, Gingrich found strong, experienced challengers who could hold their own against Democratic incumbents. In addition, the Republicans were successful in 1994 because they were smart about money. Money raised by the national party was strategically given to Republican challengers in more competitive districts, allowing the challengers to fight better financed incumbents. Districts were considered “competitive” if they leaned Republican, but a Democrat had managed to hold on to the House seat by emphasizing local issues over national ones in previous elections.

In 2006, Democrats also found success by nationalizing local races. Democratic strategists knew the best way to make Republican incumbents vulnerable was to link them to Bush and the unpopular Iraq war policy. Under the leadership of Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, the Democratic Party pursued a fifty-state strategy. This strategy meant Democrats would battle for House and Senate seats across the country, rather than just fighting in regions where Democrats had historically performed well. To make the races in more conservative areas of the country more competitive, party leadership recruited moderate Democrats to run against Republican incumbents.

In contrast with the Republicans in 1994, Democrats chose not to create a specific national party platform. Instead, Democrats chose the theme of “a new direction” for the campaign, a theme that was intentionally ambiguous so it could be embraced by the range of candidates running across the country. The theme was meant to show that choosing Democrats would lead to a new direction in Iraq war policy, congressional ethics, and economic policy. Republicans attacked Democrats for being too vague, but voters were so fed up with Republicans that they embraced the idea of a “new direction.”

Now it’s time to switch gears and talk about pundits’ predictions. It seems after every election political analysts make large-scale predictions about what that election means for the future of the country, but I’ve always wondered how accurate these predictions are. After all, pundits aren’t clairvoyant. In the case of the 1994 election, the analysts were partially correct in their predictions. The one prediction that almost every pundit and researcher made was that the Republicans would continue their dominance after the 1994 election because the country as a whole was growing more conservative. Data backed up this prediction; the number of Americans who considered themselves conservative grew between 1990 and 1994, as did the number of Americans who said they identified more with the Republican Party. This prediction never quite came true, however. Missteps made by Gingrich and the Republican leadership led to Clinton being re-elected in 1996. Though Republicans held on to Congress for 12 years, the electorate did not grow much more conservative. In fact, data has shown that in recent years, some Americans have become more liberal, especially when it comes to social issues.

The second major prediction made in several of the articles I read was that the 1994 election signified the end of the Democratic presence in the South. The popularity of Democrats in the South had been on the decline since the party started becoming more liberal during the civil rights era. More moderate Democrats in the South had managed to hold on to their seats by emphasizing local issues and distancing themselves from the liberal establishment in Washington. In the 1994 election, Republicans were able to tie these moderate incumbents to Clinton and solidify Republican control in the South. This prediction has more or less come true. Since the 1994 election, the South has for the most part remained a solidly Republican voting bloc. Democrats have kept control of some seats in urban areas, but in election after election, the South has remained red.

When we look at 2006, the predictions were not as extreme, perhaps because the results of the election were not as shocking as the results in 1994. Though some analysts in 2006 thought the election represented a resurgence of the Democratic Party, grand predictions like “the beginning of a Democratic era” didn’t surface until after the 2008 election. Some pundits did hypothesize that the results of the 2006 election would improve the Democrats chances in the 2008 presidential election. It’s harder to declare whether this prediction was accurate, but given that a Democrat won the 2008 election, there is a chance it could have been correct.

And now I need to wrap up. I threw a lot of information into this post, so I thought I would summarize my conclusions. First and foremost, my research showed that for a minority party to become the majority, they need to nationalize local races by tying majority party incumbents to the unpopular decisions made by their party. To pick up the number of seats needed to take control of Congress, the minority party needs to win races in very diverse districts. The best way to do that is to turn voter anger about national issues against members of the majority party. When it comes to pundits’ predictions, it’s hard to draw conclusions. Analysts are always going to make big predictions after landslide elections and sometimes they’ll be right. In the end, only time can tell the significance of an election.


  1. efpelletier says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading your research! Have you thought about how your findings might apply to the 2010 election? It seems like there was a similar power shift, although maybe not as strong of a reversal between the parties, but I’m sure some of the same forces were in play with Republicans playing off anger at Obama. Also, do you think that some of these general truths of American politics that you’ve uncovered could be applicable to predicting outcomes in 2012?

  2. camckenna says:

    It seems a major staple in both the 1994 and 2006 election was associating the majority party with what was happening in Washington (mostly Clinton in 1994 and Bush in 2006). Do you think that this trend will continue in 2012, especially with the recent turmoil over the economy? Also, it appears that in both cases, the minority party reached out more to the entire population in order to gain support. Is this a trend unique to 1994 and 2006, or is it seen in lesser extends in other, less ground-shaking elections?

    I’m looking forward to see your next post on the issue.

  3. I’ve really enjoyed reading all your blogs and I’m interested in seeing how you could apply your conclusions to the major elections of the next couple years. I especially liked this post and your discussion of nationalizing local elections, which is something that I think a lot of people currently accept as the norm. The fact that this mindset is less than 20 years old is really interesting. How do you think that this nationalization has increased the connections between the president and their party that you’ve mentioned in your other posts? If much of the victories in 2004 and 2006 were anti-Clinton and anti-Bush, do you feel that this strategy has increased the impact of this backlash by tying parties together?