Political Animal


February 15, 2013 9:47 AM U.S. House Locked and Loaded

By Ed Kilgore

No, this post isn’t about gun regulation, though that’s one of the issues affected by the political phenomenon it’s actually about. I argued yesterday that Barack Obama may seem serene because the obstacles he faces in governing are so immovable that any failures he has are beyond his control, and the whole gridlocked mess will soon enough be somebody else’s problem.

Earlier I noted here that Alan Abramowitz has offered a best-case scenario for Democratic House candidates in 2014, and it falls well short of a majority. Now comes Charlie Cook with a parallel argument: there just aren’t enough competitive districts right now to enable a landslide by either side:

Using The Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index, which ascertains how the presidential voting patterns in each congressional district differ from the national average, we took a look at the 2004 and 2008 presidential-election results in congressional districts (the final PVI incorporating the 2012 results will be available in the next month or so), and compared them with previous years. In 1998, there were 164 swing districts, which we define as a district with a Democratic or Republican PVI of 5 points or less. The swing districts outnumbered the 148 solid “R” districts where Republicans had an edge of more than 5 points, and the 123 solid “D” districts where Democrats had an edge of more than 5 points.
The number of swing districts dropped from 164 in 1998 to 132 by 2000, to 111 in 2002, then to 108 for two elections (2004 and 2006). The 2008 and 2010 cycles both had 103 swing districts, and the total slipped to 99 in the 2012 cycle. Currently, 190 districts have a Republican PVI over 5 points, 28 seats short of a majority; 146 districts have a Democratic PVI over 5 points, 72 seats short of a majority.

To put it another way, Republicans can hang onto a majority in the House even if they lose more than two out of three “swing districts.” Add in (a) the historic pattern of the party holding the White House usually losing House seats in midterms, particularly second-term midterms, and more importantly (b) the recently emerging strong Republican advantage in midterm turnout patterns—and it’s going to be a very tough row to hoe for the Donkey Party. And BTW, this matters even if all this forecasting is inaccurate, because it affects how congressional Republicans will behave (and the 2014 Senate landscape is pretty good for them as well).

Are Republicans capable of throwing these advantages away? It’s certainly possible. The famous “Gingrich Congress” of 1995-1999 managed in 1998 to produce a rare departure from the “six-year itch” pattern I noted above via its extremism and irresponsibility. Perhaps Gingrich’s heirs will decide they are all “rebranded” and rebooted and ready to re-assume the natural governing role God intended for them when he dictated the Declaration of Independence to the Founders and warned them America was not to be a democracy.

Either way, I don’t think House Republicans are looking to surrender their illusions any time soon. As we used to say down south about bad people, they “need a beating.” It’s just unlikely they’ll get a sound enough beating in 2014.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • JMG on February 15, 2013 9:56 AM:

    One thing you learn in sports is that streaks always end. Truisms are true until one time they're not. It may be likely that the Republicans will retain control of the House, but to offer such forecasts approximately 18 months before 95 percent of voters have given the election a thought seems risky to me. Events can and will intercede.
    Also, whenever analysts discuss off-year elections and how they always work for Republican turnout, how come they never mention 2006?

  • martin on February 15, 2013 10:12 AM:

    As we used to say down south about bad people, they “need a beating.”
    Well, down here it's usually, "some people just need killin'", but that could get the Secret Service on your tail;>

  • ClearEye on February 15, 2013 10:31 AM:

    Here was the Pew poll headline on October 29, 2012:

    ''Presidential Race Dead Even; Romney Maintains Turnout Edge''

    How did that work out?

    Way too early to predict anything about 2014.

  • Peter C on February 15, 2013 10:55 AM:

    Ed, would you please stop with the 'WE'RE DOOOOOOMED!" rhetoric!

    The past is only a predictor of the future if the conditions remain unchanged. But, we've got UNPRECEDENTED things going on and they matter.

    Congress has never been as unpopular as it is now, and FINALLY, there is solid push-back against the standard 'both sides do it' crap.

    The Senate is filibustering a Republican nominee for Defense Secretary during a hot war! There has never been a filibuster for a cabinet position, EVER! And, for WHAT???

    Gerrymandering works for Republicans by packing Democrats into super-majority districts while spreading Republicans out to create districts with marginal Republican support. But this is a RISKY strategy because if you overcome the margin the district falls.

    With incumbents ALL less popular than herpes, you can overcome many margins if you WORK HARD! But you have to think it is possible and NOT decide that you are doomed. You have to see an opportunity and work to realize it!

    Yes, things happened in the past. But IF we're in unprecedented territory, the past is not a good predictor of the future. You win by changing the paradigm, not by sticking with the common wisdom. The common wisdom locks you into only getting 'past performance'.

  • Mimikatz on February 15, 2013 12:15 PM:

    Well, we can also hope that enough of the rubes who have been voting GOP because they want to identify with the winners will finally see the light. Maybe enough women will turn against them for not regulating guns and violence against women. Maybe there will be a scandal in the House. (Remember it was Hastert's inaction in the face of that FL Rep with the hots for pages that was the last straw in 2006, after Social Security and Terry Schiavo and Katrina.). Never lose hope!

  • schtick on February 15, 2013 12:51 PM:

    If the dems would get off their butts and show that the teapubs have been the party of "tax and spend" except for the rich and big corporations, show that government doesn't work because the obstructionists keep getting elected and re-elected, and that when teapubs say they want government out of our lives, they only mean the rich and corporations while average American women need vaginal probes and to get beat on a regular basis, everything will stay the same.

  • bdop4 on February 15, 2013 1:01 PM:

    Unfortunately, I think the American Electorate may need to get hit with the austerity cattle prod a few times before they stampede. Big difference between someone telling you how it feels and actually getting zinged.

    If that doesn't do it, then I don't want to know what it will take to get the masses moving.

  • JM917 on February 15, 2013 4:41 PM:

    The gerrymandering is here to stay, at least through 2020 and probably into the decade that follows. To undo it, Dems are going to have to start capturing GOP-dominated statehouses and governorships in the red states. Or else there's going to have to be a constitutional amendment (or a Supreme Court decision) that mandates non-gerrymandered House districts on the one person-one vote grounds. Don't hold your breath for either.

    In the intermediate term, what we have to hope for is two things. First, the Dems are going to have to mount a very serious effort to recruit good candidates and then get out the votes in mid-term elections of 2014 and 2018. And second, there's going to have to be a marginal shift of red-state women toward the Democrats--which means convincing them (especially the younger ones) that (A) the gun culture and the male Republican politicians who batten off it have become too dangerous to life and limb, and that (B) the GOP War on Women has likewise become intolerable.

    Perhaps there's also hope that younger red-state males are going to start waking up to how Republican ideology is robbing them of jobs. And perhaps more red-state young people of both sexes are going to get weened off fundamentalism. Here, however, change is going to come very slowly.

    The older generation of red-state GOP voters is almost certainly incorrigibly tied to its guns, its God, and its FOX channel.

    Given that what we have to shift is the current tilt of gerrymandered southern and Midwestern districts from at least 60%-40% GOP to something more like 50%-50%, the number of "persuadable" younger women and (less numerously) younger males is not necessarily out of reach.

    But one other thing: we northern libruls are going to have to stop labeling as "rubes" the younger and female folks we're trying to convince to VOTE YOUR INTERESTS.

  • Maggie on February 16, 2013 8:35 AM:

    If The political situation continues; gerrymandering via Republicans, War on Women, (ugly and painful vaginal probes), and the continued abuse by classless and vitriolic Republicans, I think there will be a revolution.If so, expect a fractured country that will be almost impossible to survive.