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How Republicans, Democrats Could Prevail in ‘Shifting Middle’ Districts

Rep. Paul Kanjorski; Creative Commons photo by flickr.com/22863752@N06

If the Republican Party is going to recapture in November the 39 seats its needs to control the House, it is going to have to do exactly what the Democrats did in 2006 and 2008. Its candidates are going to have to reach into areas and win where the electorate is divided and uncomfortable with the way things are going.

The 104 districts that Patchwork Nation calls the Shifting Middle could be important. These middle-income districts in established suburbs and mid-sized cities, are transitioning in their demographic composition, but on the whole have been trending Democratic in recent elections.

Republicans captured a respectable 45 percent of the vote in these districts in 2004, but only 39 percent in 2008.

Over the long haul – that is beyond 2010 – these districts could be critical for both parties. As the nation goes through larger economic restructuring, these places are likely to feel the changes the mostly starkly and most up close.

The often-struggling middle-middle-class families who live in the Shifting Middle are the kind of people who are most sensitive to economic changes – they may be stable, but are often a paycheck or two from trouble. And about 20 percent of them are in play as November approaches.

Looking for a Bigger Shift

In some ways the districts of the Shifting Middle would seem to be great territory for the GOP this year. After more than two years of economic trouble, one might imagine these close-to-the-margin districts would be open to alternative ideas.

But the relatively low percentage of seats in play here is a sign of problems the GOP has with middle-income voters who are not necessarily values voters. In a hard year for the incumbent party, one might expect these districts that have been good to the Democrats recently to be more wide open.

Representatives from these districts voted heavily in favor of the health care and stimulus bills. More than 60 percent of representatives from these places voted in favor of those divisive pieces of legislation. Yet the overwhelming number of these seats are safe.

A recent Pew Research Center survey broken down into Patchwork Nation’s nine congressional district types shows that 55 percent of voters in the Shifting Middle approve of how President Obama is handling his job.

And looking more closely at the 19 Shifting Middle districts that analyst Charlie Cook calls either “leaners” or “tossups,” Patchwork Nation finds that Democrats hold funding advantages in 11 of them in some cases by wide margins. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways those GOP candidates can spend more – don’t forget third-party involvement – but as a measure of pure enthusiasm or strength in those districts funding advantages count for something.

How to Win the Shifting Middle

Looking at those numbers, a real question about these places is: why? Why do the districts of the Shifting Middle, for the most part, look less likely to see seats flip? There are a few points to consider.

First, while these places have a lot of struggling middle-income voters, the Shifting Middle has missed out on some of the biggest problems from the economy’s biggest trouble-maker, the housing mess. Fewer than 16 homes out of every 1,000 were in some state of foreclosure between January and July. That is far better than the places hit hardest – like the Booming Growth districts, where that number was more than 25 homes per 1,000.

Second, voters in these districts may simply find more to like in the approach of the Democratic Congress and bills like the stimulus and health care reform, which were, in theory anyway, aimed at more struggling places. (We are breaking down the stimulus by congressional district and hope to have it done soon.)

Third, it may be that the growing Hispanic populations in these districts favor Democratic policies.

There are, of course, Shifting Middle districts where the Republicans do look ready to switch a seat – like Pennsylvania’s 11th district when incumbent Rep. Paul Kanjorski is in trouble.

But there are also plenty like Massachusetts 10th District, an open seat currently held by the Democrats. After Sen. Scott Brown did well in that district in his run in January, carrying most of the counties included in it by large margins, the assumption was it would swing GOP. But it has not been easy. Charlie Cook has it leaning Democratic.

There is still time before the election, of course. But the districts of the Shifting Middle are worth paying attention to this fall.

If the GOP makes big inroads here and captures a majority of those 19 competitive seats, they may, in the process, devise a good way to reach these changing middle-middle districts that have been hard for them capture.

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