Political Animal


March 19, 2013 3:59 PM Two House Handicappers Punch the Donkey

By Ed Kilgore

By coincidence, I assume, two big names in the electoral handicapping biz came out with initial thoughts about the House landscape for 2014 today.

At the Wall Street Journal, Larry Sabato (with Kyle Kondik) took a macro approach, mainly noting the historical record suggesting the kind of gains Democrats would need to regain control of the House:

Since the start of the modern two-party system in the mid-19th century, the party of an incumbent president has never captured control of the House from the other party in a midterm election. While many presidents have held the House for their party, in 35 of 38 midterms since the Civil War the incumbent’s party has lost ground.

Two of those three exceptions, however, did occur in the last fifteen years (Democrats in 1998 and Republicans in 2002).

After noting the advantages Republicans enjoy in the House thanks to redistricting and superior vote distribution efficiency, Sabato and Kondik come up with this daunting if not particularly well-documented benchmark:

Based on historical measures, it would take a massive popular preference for Democrats to overcome their logistical disadvantage, perhaps an almost unheard-of lead of 13 points in the generic ballot questions pollsters use (“will you vote Democratic or Republican for House in the next election?”). Currently, the generic ballot shows a slight Democratic lead of two to three points.

Meanwhile, Roll Call’s Stu Rothenberg takes the micro approach, and looks at specific districts where Democrats would need to make the gains necessary to produce a net gain of 17 seats and win control of the House:

[L]ooking over the list of 30 Republicans who won by less than 10 points, I see no more than 11 who deserve to be on a list of initially vulnerable GOPers. But let’s be generous and add Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (who is likely to again win a narrow victory) to the list, bringing it to an even dozen.
To that dozen, add two California districts held by Republicans that voted for Obama — currently represented by David Valadao and Gary G. Miller — that the GOP won either because of a Democratic recruiting problem or the state’s runoff process. Given the fundamentals of Miller’s district, his seat is a Democratic takeover waiting to happen. Now, add districts where Obama almost won and Democrats had relatively weak House candidates. That would include two districts in Pennsylvania — now held by GOP incumbents Patrick Meehan and Michael G. Fitzpatrick — and one in Ohio (held by freshman Rep. David Joyce).
That makes 17 districts where Democrats start with realistic opportunities to make gains. The list could grow, of course, with GOP retirements, unusually strong Democratic recruits or redrawn districts in Florida and Texas. But 17 districts are not nearly enough opportunities to give Democrats a decent chance of taking back the House.

There are, of course, vulnerable Democratic seats as well:

At least 11 Democratic incumbents start off at risk: Arizona’s Ann Kirkpatrick and Ron Barber, California’s Raul Ruiz, Florida’s Patrick Murphy and Joe Garcia, Georgia’s John Barrow, Massachusetts’ John F. Tierney, New Hampshire’s Carol Shea-Porter, North Carolina’s Mike McIntyre, Texas’ Pete Gallego and Utah’s Jim Matheson.
Seven of these Democrats sit in Romney districts, and strong GOP recruiting in a handful of additional districts could make more Democrat-held seats (Minnesota Rep. Collin C. Peterson’s is a good example) vulnerable.
At this point in the cycle, Democrats probably need to put at least another two dozen additional districts into play — in addition to the ones I have cited above — and hold most of their own vulnerable seats to have a chance of netting 17 seats in the midterm elections. It’s a very tall order.

I don’t know that this last projection of “needed seats in play” is based on anything but a guess, but clearly Rothenberg wants to show that a Democratic takeover is just not happening under current conditions.

I don’t necessarily disagree, but do recall the widespread belief at this point a decade ago that Republican control of the House was “locked in” until the next redistricting cycle. Then 2006 happened.

2006, of course, was a second-term midterm for a Republican, not a Democratic president, and one whose approval ratings had fallen off dramatically. That was also before today’s exceptional alignment of the midterm electorate with the older and whiter GOP coalition had taken full shape. But while Sabato and Rothenberg’s warnings to Democrats are entirely legitimate, election “rules” are made to be broken, as they have been so often in recent history.

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.


  • Quaker in a Basement on March 19, 2013 4:07 PM:

    You might get some pushback on that headline, Ed. "Punch the donkey" has some unsavory meanings.

  • danimal on March 19, 2013 4:25 PM:

    I'll beat this dead horse (or donkey) for the rest of the electoral cycle: the dynamics that lead to losses in year 6 just aren't there this cycle. GOP obstruction has, ironically, slowed down the losses in new ideas and the ruling party fatigue that usually lead to large congressional losses. Unless the landscape changes, watch for GOP retirements to pick up this fall/next winter.

    Also, I sense a deeper commitment to engage in the off-year election from Dems than from GOPers at this point. 2010 was a wake-up call, among other things.

  • c u n d gulag on March 19, 2013 4:34 PM:

    As Yogi Berra allegedly once said, "Predicting things is hard. Especially about the future."

    Couldn't 2010 have been "The Perfect Republican Storm?"

    It was the convergnence of a new, first-ever, Black President, his new, first-ever, health care plan, the fact that the worst economy in over 70 years wasn't improving fast enough, and the Reich-wing Wurlitzer, cranked-up to 11.

    If the Republicans keep being as intransigent, downright Nihilistic, as they've been since President Obama came into office, and especially since 2010, the voters may, just may, decide that "enough, is enough, already."

    I'm not saying it will happen.
    But, it's possible it could.

  • Milt on March 19, 2013 4:43 PM:

    I'm not overly optimistic either but keep in mind the extreme position in which the Republicans find themselves. In Congress they are held in disdain being seen as selfish bigots who owe their allegiance to billionaires. The best presidential candidate they could get was a joke. They are about to begin a civil war between conservative factions. They have no real programmatic alternatives. In short, the Republican Party is falling apart with no quick fixes in sight. If ever the Democrats stood a decent chance of retaking the House, 2014 is the year.

  • Doug on March 19, 2013 4:45 PM:

    "While many have held the House for their party, in 35 of 38 midterms since the Civil War the incumbent's party has lost ground." Larry Sabato (and Kyle Kondik)

    In how many of those midterms did the incumbent's party control the House going into the elections? I can understand losing seats in a House controlled by the same party as the incumbent President, but that's not the case here. Nor was it the case in 1998 or 2002.
    It seems to me that what should be looked at are those occasions when the House was *not* controlled by the same party as the incumbent president. Has anyone done so and, if so, are the results the same as this "one-size fits all" approach?

  • Peter C on March 19, 2013 4:48 PM:

    It's going to depend upon whether or not we FIGHT!

    If we were smart, we'd hold a mid-term convention. We need to change the paradigm and make this a national election, but we've got to want to win and not just 'hope we don't lose too badly'.

    Congressional approval ratings are so low that EVERY incumbant is vulnerable. When approval ratings are at unprecedentedly low levels, then precedents aren't very helpful in predicting future outcomes.

  • sgetti on March 19, 2013 5:01 PM:

    2014 might be impacted by three parties: the Dems, the GOP Rovians and a Tea Party Confederacy. The intra-party war between conservatives and 'True Conservatives' looks to escalate into a regular Hatfields and McCoys. If the Tea Party is even a quarter of the GOP total, a three-way vote division puts almost all seats in play for the Dems.

  • john sherman on March 19, 2013 5:18 PM:

    I live in the district represented by Collin Peterson, who just voted against raising the minimum wage (one of seven Democrats). He is just barely a Democrat, and every election the Republicans field some hapless dip who runs on the campaign slogan, "Collin Peterson is too liberal for the 7th District"; everyone has a good laugh and then votes usually by about 60% for him. I leave that spot on the ballot blank, but if Collin were in trouble, I would hold my nose and vote for him against any candidate the Republicans are likely to put up.

  • N.Wells on March 20, 2013 2:13 AM:

    In my memory, the Republicans have never been this crazy nor this detestable. Notwithstanding all the crap working against the democrats, when have they ever been handed a better case to argue for sweeping Republicans from power nationwide?