02/13/2006 - At the start of the 2006 midterm election year, two heavyweight political trends are poised for a head-on collision.
One is fueled by the low standing in the polls that the president and his party currently register, a position that invariably spells trouble for the "in party" in congressional elections. The other is driven by the sharp rise in the number of U.S. House seats that have become uncompetitive as a result of incumbent-protection gerrymandering - a development that raises some doubt that even a strong national vote for change would yield much of a partisan shakeup in Congress.
And there's a third factor at play as well - some analysts contend that the Democrats are the gang that can't shoot straight, destined to blow their big opportunity in 2006.
Gerrymandering and population shifts may indeed make big swings in congressional seats less likely - but not out of the question. According to political analyst Rhodes Cook, the number of competitive races for House seats has dwindled in recent years from a high of 111 competitive races in 1992 to a low of 32 in 2004. While 32 sounds like an ominously small number, it is not that much smaller than the mere 37 races that were up for grabs in 1988. Two years later the number of competitive races swelled to 57, by Cook's calculations, and in 1992 it jumped again to its recent high of 111.
History suggests that the current climate of public opinion about the Bush presidency, should it persist through this election year, might "nationalize" the House elections in a way that would likely overwhelm at least some of these new local fortifications. And, of course, incumbent-protection gerrymandering is not a factor in the U.S. Senate, where the election boundaries are static.
Read the full analysis Midterm Match-Up: Partisan Tide vs. Safe Seats on the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press Web site.