The prospect of a third-straight big “change” election has Republicans and Democrats – by particularly the majority party – asking: why?

The days of a few seats changing hands, as they did from 1996 to 2004, seem long past. After Democrats gained 55 seats the last two cycles, Republicans are primed to gain potentially dozens back in a series of swings that hasn’t happened for half a century.


Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chairman Chris Van Hollen, after guiding his party to big gains in 2008, had hoped for another ho-hum election of the sort that occurred in the late '90s and early 2000s.

But running a campaign committee in the first year under a new president from your party has historically been difficult, and it appears this cycle will be no different.

Beyond that, though, campaign strategists like Van Hollen have little explanation for the continued volatility in congressional elections. He said only time will tell whether the big swings are part of a lasting trend.

“I think it’s too early to predict that,” he said. “What I do know is, because we have picked up 55 seats over two cycles, we are having to defend some very tough political territory.”

If Republicans can take more than 16 seats back, it would be the first time since the early 1950s that such big swings occurred in three straight elections.

Democratic strategist James Carville noted that historical fact this week.

“Now you’re going to have three cycles in a row where the system is going to be very volatile,” Carville said. “You just don’t have that kind of turnover of this magnitude.”

But as for a reason for the swings, Carville could only venture a guess.

“One can only surmise, but I would suggest it’s a general unhappiness out there,” he said.

Carville’s partner at the breakfast, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, said that if the election were held today, Republicans would make similar gains to their 1994 wins, when they took 54 seats and the majority. They need 40 seats to regain power this year.

As for continued volatility, Greenberg cited economic factors.

“Part of reason for the three change elections in a row is that incomes aren’t rising,” Greenberg said. “The gap between the elites and the middle class is growing, and both parties are going down.”

The list of possible explanations include the economy and severe unpopularity of the Bush administration the last two cycles, combined with a historically tough political situation for the Democrats this cycle. But some strategists point to other, more underlying causes, including a confluence of circumstances, the advent of cable news and an increased appetite for polarized political discourse.

Whatever happens in 2010, the coming round of redistricting could reduce the number of competitive seats on the map next election cycle. The goal for both parties in that process is generally to shore up incumbents.

But the process also leads to members being forced to run against each other, in addition to some newly created districts, which could create some uncertainty.

Greenberg said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the trend continue if economic problems persist.

“That context might continue on for a number of cycles,” he said.