The 1994 House Elections in Perspective
GARY C. JACOBSON
The 1994 elections set off a political earthquake that will send aftershocks rumbling through national politics for years to come. For the first time in 42 years, Republicans captured the House of Representatives. The 52-seat gain that gave them a 230-204 majority was the largest net partisan swing since 1948. 1 Republicans also took control of the Senate, taking 8 seats from Democrats and immediately adding a party-switching opportunist ( Richard Shelby of Alabama) to end up with a 53-47 majority. After a two-year hiatus, the United States again has divided government--one party controlling the presidency, the other party controlling the Congress. But in a startling reversal, this time the White House belongs to the Democrats while Congress belongs to the Republicans. The Republican congressional triumph led a national sweep for the party. Indeed, the only reason the election brought divided government rather than unified Republican control is that President Clinton was not on the ballot.
Clearly, the results of the 1994 elections--particularly the House elections, which are the focus of this Chapter--were extraordinary. The question for political scientists who study elections, however, is whether the process that produced them was also extraordinary. That is, does the Republican victory mean that the electoral world depicted by the conventional literature changed fundamentally in 1994? Or can we account for the Republican success within the framework of currently accepted ideas about congressional elections? These are the questions I begin to address here. Although answers must be far from definitive at this early date, before all the relevant data are in hand for analysis, the evidence available so far suggests that although the electoral processes shaping 1994 differed in important respects from those of recent decades, most of the familiar patterns held for 1994. Although House elections were, as the post-election commentary emphasized, nationalized to a greater extent than they have been in several decades, local variation was as pronounced as ever and for the usual reasons: incumbency, the quality of challengers, campaign spending, and the interaction of national issues with local circumstances.
I begin by presenting a stylized account of the Republican victory in the 1994 House elections, with special attention to how the nationalization of local contests contributed to the party's success. Marketable national campaign themes did not by themselves give the Republicans their House majority, however. National issues needed effective local sponsors to influence House voters; to win House