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When Jake Zimmerman spoke at the last West County Dems meeting, he made a point of the fact that last year, for the first time since 1976, Democrats picked up some seats in the Missouri House. A realignment is underway here and nationwide, and it was a great year for the Ds. You’d expect another one in 2008.  After all, Jake said that this time around we have:

“potentially the same dynamic, potentially people just as angry at Republicans, just as angry at the terrible governance that this country and this state have, just as furious with George Bush.  Last time I checked, George Bush was just as bad a president today as he was two years ago. And last I checked, Matt Blunt was just as bad a governor today as he was two years ago, if not worse.”

So you would think it’s going to be a great year for us, but even supposing there isn’t the same harmonic convergence of voter anger over Republican misrule, Zimmerman is optimistic about the picture for Dems in Missouri.

Even if it’s just an okay year instead of a great one for our side, he’s convinced we’ll pick up seats. And that’s because of “the MAP”. “The map” is better for us this year.  To understand what Jake means by “the map”, first you have to know that, in politics, demographics is destiny.  

Eighty percent of voters have made up their minds, in any given year, about whom they’ll vote for. Basically, forty percent of voters are Republicans and forty percent are Democrats.  Oh sure, lots of that eighty percent claim to be independents, claim to look at the candidate rather than the party. But the fact is that after they look at the individual candidates, they somehow almost always seem to pull the lever for one team or the other.  

Since that eighty percent is pretty much settled before the first campaign speeches are even dreamed up, two groups tend to decide elections.  One of those groups, obviously, is the twenty percent of voters who really are undecided. And the other group is the voters who know which party they prefer, but who don’t know for sure whether they’re actually going to take the time to vote. Elections are on workdays, and single parents or people working two jobs to pay for their health care may not find it easy to get to the polls.

What follows from these demographics is that some elections are much more winnable for our side than others are. If you live in a rural district in southern Missouri populated by people who are 70 percent solidly in the Republican camp, then it doesn’t much matter whether Dems are having a great year or whether they put up an excellent candidate. It doesn’t even matter if Republican turnout is depressed or whether the swing voters like you.  Under those conditions, the Republican will still win, just by, maybe, 55 percent instead of 70.  

The districts where we have real pickup chances hover within a certain range, and that range is quantified by what’s called the DPI, or Democratic Performance Index. It’s a number that is based on past turnout in presidential races and other demographic factors. This is a cold and calculating exercise in numbers crunching first invented by the First Lady of warm Democratic values, Eleanor Roosevelt.

And those DPI numbers give us a statistic, a number that describes Democratic turnout in a given district.  So, in Deb Lavender’s district in Kirkwood (district 94), the DPI is 47.  What a DPI of 47 means is that in a generic year, if everybody votes the way they usually do and the swing voters split evenly, the Republican will get 53 percent of the vote and the Democrat will get 47 percent.

But of course, that figure doesn’t tell the whole story.  It doesn’t tell us, for example, what kind of campaign Deb is going to run.  If she has a good field operation, that can move the vote in her favor by somewhere between 2 percent and 4 or 5 percent.

What follows from that is that when you look at a district with a DPI somewhere between 45 and 55, “you ought to see a hyper-competitive district, a district where, all else being equal, anybody can win.” And when you look at a district with a DPI of, say, 40 percent, you’re looking at a much tougher race to win, but one where it can still be done.

So Jake loves “the map” because the two things it tells him are where the open seats are and what those DPI numbers are–and to some degree who our incumbents are that might be vulnerable.

“And across this state, right now, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of the high twenties of House districts that fit within that margin; they fit within that competitive range that I was telling you about before. And of those, a substantial number are open seats.

It’s exciting to have substantial numbers of open seats in those competitive districts because incumbency matters.  Now that Jake is a representative, he isn’t just some goofy red headed kid who shows up anywhere they’ll let him have a microphone. He’s a goofy, red headed kid who gets to use state resources to send out three mailings a year on the important issues of the day. He gets to help constituents solve problems, and if he does that, those constituents and their friends form a good opinion of him. And if nothing else, they at least recognize the name. Constituency is worth a few DPI points.

So when you look at a district within that 40-55 DPI competitive range and you see an empty seat, what you ought to think is, “Game on.”

Dems in Missouri have close to thirty competitive seats that are currently occupied by a Republican, and eleven or so of those are open seats. That situation would look good even in a generic year. But we’re hoping for a better than generic year in 2008.  If voters are still ranging between disgruntled and furious with Republican governance, then more of those seats are likely to tip in our direction.

We’ve got close to thirty chances, and we need to take eleven.  ELEVEN SEATS.  That’s how many Democrats need to take away from Republicans next November to take control of the House.

My next posting, the last in this series, will describe a few specific races and will cover some of the other factors that can swing those 40-55 DPI races our way.