What Would It Take To Flip the House? The believers say this is the year the Democrats exorcise the ghost of Newt Gingrich and grab back the big gavel. Believers have faith in poll data showing dissatisfaction with Congress reaching levels unseen since the 1994 landslide that brought the Republicans to power.

What Would It Take To Flip the House?

The big question of 2006 is really two questions. When you ask whether the Democrats can retake control of Congress, you've got one question about the Senate and another about the House.

The Senate question is still relatively easy to answer in the negative. That's because to control the Senate, the minority party would need to reach 51 seats, which means a net gain of six (assuming the independent from Vermont still votes with the Democrats).

Yes, there are half a dozen states where Democrats have a good-to-plausible shot at taking away a Republican seat this year: Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Montana, Ohio, Tennessee and Missouri. But even if the Democrats could win all six, they'd still have to defend 17 seats of their own on this November's ballot without a single loss. Impossible? No. But highly unlikely.

So the question that's still open concerns the House. Here you find two schools of thought: the believers and the doubters.

The believers say this is the year the Democrats exorcise the ghost of Newt Gingrich and grab back the big gavel. Believers have faith in poll data showing dissatisfaction with Congress reaching levels unseen since the 1994 landslide that brought the Republicans to power.

The latest evidence on the pile came with the new Pew Research Center poll, which found a clear majority of voters planning to vote Democratic for Congress this year. The margin for Democrats over Republicans was 10 points. Other recent polls have found an even wider margin.

Just as significant was the Pew percentage of voters saying they did not want their own member of Congress re-elected this year. Typically, Americans denigrate Congress but approve of their own congressman. That's still true this year, but less so. Twenty-eight percent say their own incumbent should go. That's the highest it's been since October 1994, just before the GOP takeover.

Believers also add that midterm elections are usually a referendum on the president. Historically, this has been bad news for the president's party, especially in a second term, when a president who's falling in the polls tends to drag his party down with him. As everyone knows, President Bush is right now enduring his lowest approval ratings ever (Fox News poll this week had him down to 33 percent), and that explains the steady increase in people believing the Democrats might rule the House in the 110th Congress.

If we elected our national legislature nationally, totaling all the votes and then assigning each party a proportionate number of seats, senior Democrats could start ordering their brass "Mr. Chairman" nameplates now. But that, of course, is not the case.

That's where the doubters' case begins. Doubters know that the state-by-state, district-by-district system by which we elect the House distributes the vote to protect incumbents. And this will make the current majority much harder to crack. Even in the new Pew poll, 57 percent still say they plan to vote for their own incumbent member of Congress this fall. That's close to the level of incumbent support Pew found just before the last two midterm elections in 2002 and 1998.

Most Americans hear the words reapportionment and redistricting and immediately stop paying attention. They know that these arrangements make a difference, but they also know that the explanation makes no sense or makes them angry. They know that both Democrats and Republicans practice gerrymandering to protect their incumbents, and they find this exasperating. But in most elections, that exasperation does not hurt or help either party disproportionately.

One exception came in 1994, when Republicans were emerging from a 40-year period in which the incumbent-protection system worked mostly for Democrats. Some awareness of this contributed to an overall frustration that centered on Democrats, the only party in power. (Bill Clinton was in his first term in the White House.)

There were other strong forces operating in 1994. Shifts in demography and party image had been making it easier for Republicans to run and win at all levels in the South for decades. Conservative Southern districts had been gradually replacing their Dixiecrats with new Southern Republicans. And in 1994, this trend became a tsunami.

That November brought the modern GOP its first majority of governorships in the South, its first majority of Senate seats in the South and its first majority of House seats in the South. And the party's majorities have held in all three categories ever since.

For the Democrats to retake the House, they must either reverse this polarity in the South or they must ride a wind of similar force in other parts of the country. They must root out Republican incumbents in suburban and rural districts in the North and Midwest where they have been secure for generations.

Will there be such a wind this fall? The Democrats are trying to make a corruption argument, but so far with limited success. The only issues that would seem to have potential commensurate to the challenge would be immigration and Iraq. The Republicans are divided over the former and increasingly discouraged about the latter. Whichever way their president leads on either issue, at least some Republican incumbents are likely to suffer.

But enough to tip the House? That's not likely, unless the Republican tailspin of the last eight months continues for another six.