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Democrats Have an Uphill Climb to Retake the House

By Sean Trende - November 21, 2011


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A recent spate of polls showing Democrats in the lead on a generic ballot has prompted speculation that they are poised to retake control of the House. Politico's Mike Allen recently gushed that there will be "100 seats in play. So it definitely can happen. I think the chances of it are underestimated around here. When you have 100 seats, and the sort of volatile environment you have here, [picking up] 25 is not as many as it sounds. Nobody expects it, nobody predicts it, but very possible."

Taking back the House is doable for Democrats. But it is unlikely. And the idea of 100 Republican seats being in play is a pipe dream, barring a truly historic Democratic wave in 2012.

Let’s start with the basics. One pretty much has to assume Barack Obama wins re-election before we can speculate about Democrats making big gains in the House. This looks to be somewhat shy of a 50-50 proposition right now. Even if the president does win, however, history suggests that he won’t bring along many new Democrats with him. Since the House grew to 435 seats in 1912, there have only been two occasions where the party of a president engaged in a re-election effort has picked up 25 or more seats: 1948 and 1964.

Moreover, Democrats enter the election season at a real disadvantage, vis-à-vis Republicans at a similar point in 2010. That year, there were almost 70 Democrats representing Republican-leaning districts (those with a Republican Cook Partisan Voting Index, or PVI); it was from the ranks of these Democrats that most of the Republican pickups occurred. This time, however, there are only 19 Republicans in Democratic-leaning districts to begin with. This also doesn’t account for redistricting, which has tended to make Democratic seats bluer and Republican seats redder so far this cycle.

To actually put 100 Republican seats into play, Democrats would have to put every R+7 (that is, a district that has, on average, voted seven points or more Republican than the country as a whole over the last two presidential elections) or less district into play. Even in a year like 2010, Republicans didn’t come close to putting all of the D+7 or less seats into play.

That’s really the Democrats’ problem. The seats are now pretty well sorted between the parties: Republicans occupy the Republican-leaning seats, while Democrats occupy the Democratic seats. The playing field has just shrunk. When you consider the natural Republican advantage in the House -- the median seat is presently an R+2 -- you understand the enormity of the Democrats’ task, absent yet another tsunami.

Finally, remember that the generic ballot is the best indicator we have of the mood of the country today, but that doesn’t mean it is a great indicator. After all, you don’t vote for “generic Republican,” you vote for a particular representative. Because the parties don’t field competitive candidates in all -- or even most -- districts, a lot of people who might wish to vote for a Republican or Democratic challenger won’t end up doing so. In other words, it is one thing for an independent in Northern Ohio to decide that he or she would like a Republican in Congress. It’s quite another to go to the polls and pull the lever for an obscure candidate, about whom the voter had heard little except that he had re-enacted World War II battles on the Nazi side, instead of 14-term Rep. Marcy Kaptur. This is probably why the generic ballot has tended to overstate partisan gains over the past few cycles (incidentally, the generic ballot is about a point better for Democrats right now than it was at this point in the 2009-10 cycle).

So rather than focusing specifically on the generic ballot, let’s look instead at the challenge Democrats face in specific districts. To try and put this in perspective, I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations on what a good Democratic year, a bad Democratic year, and a neutral year would look like in the various states. Here’s a chart showing the Democratic pickups by state under the various scenarios. If I skipped a state, it means that it is difficult to see any chance of a pickup for either side, except in the worst of circumstances.

Please note that I’m not assuming a wave like 2010; if something like that happens, all bets are off. In addition, I’m assuming the current maps stay in effect. If the Democrats, for example, successfully defeat the Republican gerrymander in Ohio through a referendum, the calculations would change (we know the map in Texas is changing, but really don’t know how just yet).

As you can see, there is a scenario for Democrats to take back the House in a good Democratic year, although it requires a lot of things falling into place for them. In a good Republican year, the GOP could post some gains as well. In the event that there isn’t any particular partisan bent to the electorate, the most likely outcome is a modest “dead cat bounce” for Democrats.

Rather than go through each and every state (we all know Democrats have to lose a seat in Massachusetts), here are some highlights from the states above:

Arizona: In a good Democratic year under the current map, Democrats would almost certainly pick up the new district, and would have a great chance of defeating Paul Gosar in the 1st . In a neutral year, they would probably still get the new district. In a good Republican year, Republicans would have a good shot at the new district and, if Gabby Giffords were to retire, her district as well.

California: The nonpartisan commission that Republicans fought for didn’t do them any favors. In a good Democratic year, four or five Republicans would be defeated. In a neutral year, it’s probably more like three Republicans losing. But in a good Republican year, Democrats like Lois Capps and John Garamendi would find themselves in tough spots; Republican losses could probably be held to one or two.

Florida: No one really knows what the interplay between the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Districts Initiative will produce. It is very difficult to envision a circumstance in which Allen West’s district is not made prohibitively Democratic, but at the same time Corrine Brown’s Democratic district may well be on borrowed time. Of course, splitting up Brown’s district would make several northern districts that are presently heavily Republican much more Democratic, opening the door for Democratic gains in a good Democratic year. The legislature probably has to draw a new Democratic district around Orlando, in addition to a new Republican district in the Southwest.

Illinois: Democrats may have overreached a bit in Illinois. In a good Democratic year, they probably pick up four Republican seats, hold the open 12th district in the South, and have a good chance at the 13th in central Illinois (a fifth Republican seat is eliminated). In a more neutral year, the 13th would stay Republican, and the Republicans would probably be narrowly favored in the 12th. In a good Republican year, they would probably be able to hold on to seats like Bob Dold’s (northern Chicago suburbs) and Bobby Schilling’s (northwest Illinois).

Nevada: The court drew a map that was favorable to Democrats. In a good Democratic year, it will be very difficult for Republican Joe Heck to win re-election. Otherwise, the Democrats will probably have to content themselves with picking up the newly created seat (it would probably take a wave for Republicans to claim it).

New Hampshire: Neither Republican representative is particularly popular, and a good Democratic year could probably topple both. Frank Guinta would probably survive in a neutral year, and both could hang on in a good Republican year.

North Carolina: The GOP gerrymander really did a number on Democrats here. In a good Democratic year, losses might be limited to two seats. In a good Republican year, Democratic losses could swell to four seats. In a more neutral year, Larry Kissell and Brad Miller would probably lose, while Mike McIntyre and Heath Shuler would be given a run for their money.

Ohio: Try to keep this straight: The Republican Party put two Republicans into the same district, eliminated two Democrats from the northeast, and drew a new, heavily Democratic district in Columbus. At the same time they shored up all of their incumbents. Democrats promise to overturn the map via referendum, and have a pretty good argument that a 12-4 map is unfair for a swing state like Ohio. In a good Democratic year, the party could probably upend Rep. Jim Renacci, but failing that, they’re probably stuck at 12-4 for the foreseeable future unless they overturn the map with the public.

Pennsylvania: The expectation is that Republicans learned their lessons from the 2000 “dummymander” and will concentrate on shoring up their incumbents in vulnerable districts. Expect Democratic Reps. Mark Critz and Jason Altmire to be placed into the same districts, and for Reps. Allyson Schwartz and Tim Holden to soak up a lot of Democratic voters from the remaining Republican representatives. Nevertheless, in a good Democratic year, Republicans like Jim Gerlach and Lou Barletta would probably find themselves vulnerable, even in shored-up districts.

Utah: Republicans did a number on Jim Matheson’s district. He’s survived good Republican years before, and could probably still survive in a good Democratic year or a neutral year. But this district is probably too much for him in a good Republican year.

Washington: Pretty much everyone agrees that Democrats will get a new, Democratic-leaning seat, but that Republicans Jaime Herrera Beutler and Dave Reichert will see substantially safer districts as a result.

You can quibble here and there with the calls, but overall this is a pretty fair representation of the three scenarios. Simply put, there aren’t enough opportunities for Democrats to gain more than nominal control of the House, except in wave years. Similarly, it is hard to see how 100 seats are put into play, unless the bottom completely drops out for the GOP. 

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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