Thursday, June 08, 2006

Technology Sharpens the Incumbents' Edge; Redistricting Also Complicates Democrats' Effort to Take Control of House
Technology Sharpens the Incumbents' Edge
Redistricting Also Complicates Democrats' Effort to Take Control of House
By Jim VandeHei and Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writers

In Ohio's 1st Congressional District, Republican incumbent Steve Chabot is running up against his toughest reelection challenge in years. But his Democratic opponent is running up against Chabot's computer.

In one of the lesser-known perks of power on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are using taxpayer-funded databases to cultivate constituents more attentively than ever. Chabot -- a six-term legislator from Cincinnati who finds himself imperiled this year after years of easy races -- has a list of e-mail addresses of people who are most interested in tax cuts. His office recently hit the send button on a personal message to alert them to the congressman's support for extending tax breaks on dividends and capital gains.

Chabot's computer is one factor to keep in mind when assessing the odds that Republicans will get evicted this November from their 12-year majority in the House. Anti-incumbent sentiment, as measured by polls and voter interviews, is stronger than it has been in years. But so, too, are certain structural advantages that overwhelmingly favor incumbents.

Some are well known, such as the superior ability of incumbents to raise campaign funds and the fact that most lawmakers come from districts that have been carefully drawn to favor one party. Other benefits -- including the ways that lawmakers are using the latest "micro-targeting" techniques in their official communications -- are more obscure, virtually unheralded beyond the people who use them.

"A major reason fewer incumbents lose is we have perfected the use of information technology," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). "As incumbents, we have unlimited access to the most up-to-date technology in the world" free of charge, he said.

One way to think of this midterm election year, analysts say, is a collision between a wave and a wall.

The wave overwhelmingly favors Democrats: an unpopular war in Iraq, job approval ratings for President Bush at record lows, corruption scandals that have engulfed GOP congressional leaders, and polls showing voters favoring Democrats and their positions on the issues by distinct margins.

But Republicans still benefit from the wall: a long-term trend that for years has led to steadily fewer competitive districts.

Democrats are growing increasingly confident that this year the wave will be higher than the wall, but they acknowledge that the challenge of picking up the 15 seats they need to take control is daunting. Analysts have been watching yesterday's special election in California to replace resigned and convicted representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) for an early indicator of the year's trend. The San Diego area district is traditionally Republican, but recent polls have shown Democrats well positioned for an upset. No result was expected until early today Washington time.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), head of the House Democrats' reelection efforts, said that the party faces a "rigged system" and that only a pitched level of public discontent gives them a "fighting chance" to overcome it.

In a memo delivered to House Democrats last week, Emanuel told lawmakers that redistricting could impede their takeover hopes, noting that respected political handicapper Charlie Cook estimates there are 35 truly competitive races -- compared with 100 in 1994.

One way to look at how incumbents have grown entrenched is to compare this election year with 1994 -- the year Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and his "Republican Revolutionaries" roared to victory by picking up 54 House seats. Although Democrats had held the majority for four decades, there was ample evidence long before Election Day of how vulnerable many of them were.

Democrats that year defended 61 seats in which the lawmaker had won no more than 55 percent of the vote in the previous election, a threshold many strategists and political scientists use to identify at-risk incumbents. Democrats lost 29 of the 61 seats.

This year, Republicans are defending only 19 seats in which their House member won 55 percent or less in the previous election.

In 2004, only five of the 404 incumbents seeking reelection lost -- a reelection rate of 99 percent.

In California, all 101 incumbents who ran for reelection in 2002 and 2004 won, and all but two clobbered their opponents by 20 percentage points or more. The story is the same in most states.

At the same time, the polarized electorate tends to reduce fluidity on Capitol Hill, an advantage for the party that benefits from the status quo. Thanks to packed districts and a decline in split-ticket voting, there are fewer districts that vote for a president of one party but elect a member of Congress from the opposite party. Bush carried 255 House districts in the past presidential election, compared with Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry's 180. "There has been a big increase in party-line voting at all levels," said Gary C. Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego who studies political trends.

In many state legislatures, which draw congressional districts, politicians have joined in an unspoken bipartisan alliance to protect incumbents. Often this has been accomplished by packing Democratic-trending voters -- especially African Americans -- into a few urban districts, rather than spreading them in ways that would make more districts truly competitive. Some Democrats, including Rep. Brad Sherman (Calif.), lament the trend. Sherman said he fears that "a majority of those casting votes will vote Democratic in November" but that votes will be distributed in a way that does not necessarily produce a majority of House seats.

Chabot is an illustration of the way lawmakers settle into their seats. He won by campaigning against then-President Bill Clinton's tax increases in 1994, taking 56 percent of the vote. He had tight races in 1996 and 1998. But after the 2000 census, Ohio's Republican governor and the GOP-led state legislature made life easier for him. His new district was shaped to include more Republican neighborhoods. In an interview, Chabot said he estimates the new lines added about five percentage points to his November returns.

Democrat John Cranley, a Cincinnati City Council member, is bidding to change that. He and other Democrats have been hitting Chabot for supporting the Iraq war and an overhaul of Social Security.

The national winds are gusting in Cranley's direction. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 56 percent of voters said they want Democrats to control the House, and a majority said they preferred Democrats to handle every domestic and foreign issue they were asked about. But these broad trends in public opinion will not mean much, strategists say, unless Democrats succeed in translating them into an expanded number of truly competitive races.

Chabot said he is not concerned about the toxic political environment because "I know my district very well."

Like all incumbents, he has some important tools in knowing his district, ones not easily replicated by challengers trying to reach the roughly 600,000 people who live in a typical congressional district.

One of these tools is the congressional account each lawmaker can use to communicate with constituents. In the past, this money went mainly for sending newsletters or other mailings to voters, who often turned around and tossed them in the trash. But technology has allowed lawmakers to track the interests of individual voters, file the information into a database and then use e-mails or phone calls to engage directly with voters on issues they know they care about. In essence, this is the traditional "franking" privilege updated -- and made far more powerful -- for the digital age.

There are some restrictions, such as requirements that official office communications are not overly political. But there is a fine line between politics and constituent service, legislators acknowledge.

The practice is so commonplace that a cottage industry of consultants has emerged to assist House members in their micro-targeting strategies. Aris McMahon of Constituent Services Inc. advises several lawmakers on the latest techniques, including increasingly popular "virtual town halls" or "tele-town halls."

Using taxpayers' money, legislators employ a new technology that allows them to call thousands of households simultaneously with a recorded message, asking people in their districts to join in on a conference call with their representative. With the push of a button, the constituent is on the line with the House member -- and often 1,000 or more fellow constituents. More important, the lawmaker knows from the phone numbers where the respondents live and, from what they say on the call, what issues interest them.

At a retreat in St. Michaels, Md., in January, Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Calif.) briefed Republicans on how to host these tele-town halls using their office budget, participants said. Information gathered from the events, as well as e-mails and phone calls from constituents, gets plugged into a database, giving the incumbent something a challenger could only dream of: a detailed list of the specific interests of thousands of would-be voters. E-mail then allows for personal interaction -- and a free reminder of why the incumbent should be reelected.