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Restoring Balance

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In some ways, it is easy to dismiss what happened in the midterm elections and to chalk up Democrats' gains to voters' displeasure over the war in Iraq, scandals, and a feeling that Congress has grown dysfunctional.

Some people go so far as to argue that this election meant very little in terms of the national political climate and the balance of power in Washington. But it's a mistake to ignore how this election redistributed party clout in the capital to more closely reflect the views of the nation as a whole.

Politically, this country is pretty evenly divided. If one looks at party identification in the combined 2005 national polling surveys of the Gallup Organization, Democrats had a 4.5-percentage-point advantage over the GOP, 47.7 percent to 43.2 percent, when independents are counted as belonging to the party they lean toward.

For most of the first three quarters of 2006, the Democrats' edge widened to 9 points -- 49.8 percent to 40.8 percent. Combining almost seven quarters of data shows a Democratic advantage of 6.4 percent, 48.6 percent to 42.2 percent.

Another way of comparing the two parties' relative strength is to look at the popular vote for the presidency in the past two elections. In 2000, Democrats very narrowly won the popular vote -- 48.4 percent to 47.9 percent. Four years later, Republicans won the balloting by a bit more, 50.7 percent to 48.3. Averaged together, those results yield an electorate that was 49.3 percent Republican, 48.3 percent Democratic -- a 1-point GOP edge.

A third method of comparison is to examine the popular vote for the House. According to data collected for the Pew Research Center by Rhodes Cook, the popular vote for the House in 2000 was evenly split, 48 percent to 48 percent.

In 2002, Republicans won by 5 points -- 51 percent to 46 percent. And in 2004, the GOP had a 3-point advantage, 50 percent to 47 percent. Preliminary numbers for 2006 indicate that Democrats won by 6 points, 52 percent to 46 percent.

In short, over the past six years, conclusions about which party has stronger popular support depend on which measurement you use. But the bottom line is, voters have been very evenly divided. It is a mistake to view any one election as a trend of some sort.

In terms of power, though, the parties have not been in balance. Control of the White House is a binary calculation: Either you have control, or you don't. The GOP has controlled the White House for the past six years and will keep it for at least two more.

The House, where the GOP held sway for the past 12 years, is very close to being binary as well: Minority parties rarely have much influence, though if the GOP throws in its lot with the "Blue Dog" Democrats, that could change the dynamic in the 110th Congress.

The Senate, where the Republican Party held a majority in 11 of the past 12 years, is anything but binary. Because of the Senate's filibuster rules and its reliance upon unanimous consent, having the majority in that chamber is a huge bonus but not the overwhelming advantage that it is in the House.

In short, Americans are very closely divided, but for the past six years Republicans have pretty much controlled everything in Washington. (Some might throw in the Supreme Court for good measure.) The federal government has reflected just half of the electorate's political leanings.

Now Democrats will have a two-seat edge in the Senate and a sizable majority in the House. With one recount still under way and one runoff to come, House Democrats hold 232 seats to the GOP's 201 -- about 53 percent to 46 percent.

So, something of a balance has been restored. Bluntly put, the election pretty much aligned the distribution of power with the political leanings of the people.

 
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