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2014 House Prospects

[ 21 ] December 4, 2012 |

I was somewhat surprised that a majority of the handful of comments responding to my post debunking the “six year itch” were far more interested in the general prospects for the Democrats in the 2014 House elections, and of those, most were upbeat.  In general, the hopeful comments, as well as the sheer delusional optimism of the TDS post that I linked, rely not on evidence or data, but predominantly faith.  To wit, from the TDS post:

Democrats ought to be able to pick up 17 Republican seats with a combination of better candidates, state-of-the-art micro-targeting and a more focused and energetic GOTV program targeting pro-Democratic constituencies in those districts – small though they may be. There should be an equally vigorous ‘front porch’ campaign to sway persuadable voters. Further, if Democrats can do as well as we have with 7.9 percent unemployment, an improving economy should boost our chances in ’14.

Ignoring both history and the turnout effect for the moment, there are a range of potential positives.  The Democrats currently have a considerable edge in GOTV and micro-targeting, and unlike following 2008, this organization might remain active for 2010.  Furthermore, the Republicans are unlikely to catch up in time for 2014.  Assuming a satisfactory negotiation to the fiscal cliff, structural conditions should benefit the Democrats in 2014.  Combine this with the bedding in of the PPACA and other domestic initiatives, Democrats can run on a positive platform of accomplishment and a growing economy, thus resulting in the possibility of a strong tailwind.  Finally, as with the Democrats in the House following 2006 and 2008, the Republicans might be at their high water mark in terms of viability in House seats with the 113th Congress.

However, let’s examine some of the negatives.  First, while “Too much focus on historical precedent is debilitating. History is never made by entertaining defeatist memes or those who are daunted by precedent.” is a nice sentiment, that’s precisely what it is — sentiment. A Democratic gain of 17 seats would nearly double the existing record of the past 20 midterms, which remains the nine seats gained by Democrats in 1934.  Even gaining seats, however few, is rare.  The historical reality is that of the 20 midterm elections dating back to 1934, the incumbent party has only gained seats in three: 1934, 1998, and 2002.  I’m sympathetic to the counter argument that each election is at least partially influenced by its unique historical context, but each of the three incumbent positive elections are notable precisely for such reasons: 1934 has been characterised as a referendum on FDR’s New Deal, 1998 a backlash against the possible impeachment of Clinton, and 2002 a ‘rally around the flag’ effect.  While it’s not unimaginable for 2014 to have such an atypical historical context of its own, I don’t think that a growing economy and a sudden appreciation for Obama’s 2009-10 domestic accomplishments measure up to the events of 1934, 98, or 2002.

Then there’s turnout.  Following 2010, I argued in public lectures and other forums that this wasn’t the repudiation of the Obama agenda nor did it doom Obama’s re-election, as the British media strongly suggested, but that it was because of turnout.  It was simply a different electorate who participated.  Turnout always declines in mid term elections.  When turnout declines, it effects different socioeconomic categories at different rates.  Those categories that get hit the most are categories that strongly supported Obama in 2008 (and 2012).  Indeed, I argued this very point here on LGM following a handful of special elections in 2009:

It wasn’t a newly energized base that swung the races; rather it was a combination of independents breaking R and a good chunk of the “Obama coalition” staying home.  Which we knew they would all along. Minorities, the young, the less wealthy, new voters do tend to stay home in odd years (and while I anticipate an uptick in turnout amongst these groups in 2010, it won’t come near the level of 2008). These were the demographic categories that largely put Obama (way) over the top in 2008.

Limited to the two-party vote, national turnout in 2010 House elections was 71.4% of turnout in 2008 House elections.  (Some ballot drop-off does occur: in 2008, 129,391,711 votes were cast for either Obama or McCain, while only 116,841,071 for D or R House candidates; I use the latter figure when calculating the difference in House election turnout between 2008 and 2010; expanded to all votes, roughly two million votes were cast for third-party presidential candidates, while 3.5 million were cast for third-party House candidates.)  As turnout decline has systematic effects that work against Democratic candidates at present, it would take a considerable GOTV operation, coupled with ideal structural conditions, tail winds approaching a jet stream, to create conditions where Democrats can gain seats in 2014.  A historical electoral context in league with 1934, 1998, or 2002 wouldn’t hurt.

However, this is all hoping borderline assuming that each of these attributes of the 2014 election will break the Democrats’ way.  It’s possible that the structural conditions of the election do not improve from 2012 or 2010 for a variety of reasons.; indeed, there’s evidence today to suggest a growth rate in the 4th quarter of only 0.8%, with one estimate as low as 0.2% for the entire year.   A settlement to the fiscal cliff should shield the Republicans (at present a Pew poll indicates 53% would blame Republicans, only 27% the Administration, for a failure of negotiations) but any deal will involve large spending cuts which are more than less likely to hurt the economy at the margins in the short term.  Finally, an atypical historical context can go in either direction.

Then there’s the gerrymandering.  The Republicans did an outstanding job of that following the 2010 census.  The table below lists the national results as well as four states: Pennsylvania, Texas, California, and Ohio, comparing the vote percentages and seat percentages in each, from the 2012 House elections:

Nationally, the Republicans received a boost of 4 points in translating votes into seats.  At the state level, they gained over 20 points in both Pennsylvania and Ohio, a surprisingly restrained eight points in Texas, and of course lost 11 points in California.  Out of curiosity, these are the only four I’ve looked at so far, so I’m wondering if there are others worth mentioning?

Even if structural conditions are solid and a tailwind is at the back of the Democratic Party in 2014, lower turnout, the historical penalty suffered by the incumbent party, and the Repbulicans’ built-in advantage of redistricting for the next ten years makes aspirations of gaining seats, let alone reclaiming the majority, a wildly optimistic expectation.  Simply engaging a GOTV operation of similar size and efficacy to 2012 would stretch the budget for a mid term election, and even then the return on investment probably won’t be as impressive considering that it’s more difficult to persuade casual voters to get motivated for a mere Congressional election.

In other words, while I hope I’m very wrong, I’m not optimistic.

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Comments (21)

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  1. snarkout says:

    I’m not sure if you read Daily Kos Elections (it’s a subsite entirely devoted to horserace issues, with a really shocking depth of knowledge), but there has been really good analysis of the new maps there throughout 2011 and 2012. The California map was of course generated by an independent commission rather than a partisan gerrymander, although since it undid a bipartisan incumbent protection map in a state that has grown much bluer it had basically the same effect. (Although it’s not hard to demonstrate how you could have driven out even more Republicans given a Democratic gerrymander of the state.) For Democratic gerrymandering with the goal of maximizing seats, you’d want to look at Illinois or (perhaps) Maryland. Virginia and North Carolina are missing from your GOP list.

    • mpowell says:

      In a single member district winner take all system, states that swing strongly one way or the other will always tend to deliver proportionally more representatives than the leading party two-party share. This should be pretty obvious if you think about it. CA and TX represent about what I would expect from such a system (and are pretty similar to one another). It’s Penn and Ohio that are crazy with non-existent or tiny Republican advantages leading to representation that would be disproportionate in the deep South.

      Obviously the Democrats could play this game where they have majorities, but I have a hard time seeing Democratic politicians going for a mid-decade redistricting.

      • snarkout says:

        Yeah, that’s what I was getting at — the situation for Republicans in California is the inverse of the traditional situation for Democrats, in that Republican support is highly geographically constrained, so non-partisan goals like compact districts or communities of interest have the effect of disproportionately reducing the number of expected GOP seats.

        • mpowell says:

          That’s not really the point I was making. If you take CA voters and then randomly subdivide them into 50 equal sized groups (or however many representatives they have), there will be an expected percentage of them that are majority Republican. If the state-wide split was 50/50, the expected percentage would be 50/50. But say the Republican state-wide vote is 40%. Then the expected share in each sub-group will be 40%. The likelihood of a sub-group having a Republican majority is related to the likelihood that one sub-group will randomly have more Republican voters than the average. This likelihood declines exponentially as state-wide Republican vote share declines linearly due to the mathematics of statistics. So Republican representation will be expected to drop faster than state-wide vote share.

          Breaking them up into compact geographies means that voters are not actually distributed randomly because like-minded voters tend to live near each other, but the same effect will still be present to a certain degree. I’m not sure that the distribution of Republican voters in CA is actually substantively disadvantageous for the Republican party compared to what you would expect give their state wide vote share.

    • John says:

      Florida should also be looked at, I think, for Republican gerrymanders.

      • Jameson Quinn says:

        Yes. But there is a caveat: though this is true in many states, it’s especially true in FL that Republicans have a natural edge in gerrymandering. That is, if you made some machine that threw out random geographically-defined districts, they would tend to skew R even if the state as a whole was 50/50, because D votes are more clustered than R ones.

  2. mpowell says:

    It’s the gerrymandering that really does it. I don’t know what historical trends are, but an 8 point edge is simply insane. The Dems would need a double digit national polling advantage to get any kind of decent majority and while that isn’t that unusual historically, I don’t think we’re likely to see that for the next few election cycles as the dixeicrats have finally 100% figured out that they are supposed to vote for Republicans (and everyone has figured this out as well, with predictable consequences among minorities). So there is less of the vote to swing until demographic changes are capable of giving Democrats double digit national leads, at which point the Republican party will probably change it’s strategy and shake things up again.

    So yeah, 2014 is probably a bad bet even with historical tailwinds because of gerrymandering and a low swing electorate. What I would really like to see are some projections based on demographic trends at current voting patterns for when Democrats could expect an 8-10 pt edge in a generic national matchup. You have to make a lot of assumptions so it could be interesting to see what people comes up with.

    • Dirk Gently says:

      Agreed: the “generic ballot” polls would have to show about a 10 point lead before I’d be optimistic about a House takeover. That said, I think we might reasonably assume that the Dems won’t LOSE all that many seats, and just *might* gain some, albeit short of a majority.

      And I’m with you on the demographic trends: if the Dems field a reasonably decent candidate in 2016, will that translate into a House takeover, or will it be another 1-2 cycles from there? I don’t see the GOP regaining lost ground with key groups as fast as those groups start voting in large numbers.

      • mpowell says:

        Yeah, one way of looking at it is will it happen before 2020? Because that’s the time for the next redistricting. What I expect will happen is that the demographic trends will not be strong enough between now and then and we’ll probably have a Republican house until 2020. Though I could see a Republican president losing enough seats in a 2018 mid-term. The 2020 elections will not be mid term elections and the Democrats will probably do well enough in state elections that the next redistricting will not be remotely as disadvantageous. Then I think things will get interesting because the Republican party might be in real trouble at the national level.

        • mds says:

          Because that’s the time for the next redistricting.

          Well, I’d say that Democrats regaining power in state legislatures in Ohio or Pennsylvania would be time for the next redistricting, except (1) state Democrats have usually refused to do what, e.g., Texas and Pennsylvania Republicans did between the 2000 and 2010 censuses; and (2) the gerrymandering was applied to state legislative districts as well, so Democrats are blocked from regaining power in PA, OH, WI, and presumably MI without a massive swing.

          Also, if I recall, Maryland’s Democratic gerrymander was actually more dramatic than that in Illinois, which actually made the egregious “rabbit on a skateboard” 17th Congressional District look more reasonable. And a 12D-6R split isn’t really all that crazy, especially coming off of an 8D-11R split. So we might consider avoiding Illinois as our “Both sides do it” exemplar.

          So yeah, unless Congress accidentally replaces the Apportionment Act of 1911 with something better, the House is out of reach in the near term.

  3. Andrew says:

    Re other states to evaluate for redistricting effects: Illinois.

  4. There’s a wild card here: Tea Party primary challengers.

    The question isn’t whether the Tea Party will hand the Democrats seats that should be completely safe for the Republicans, but how many. Remember, that drop-off in turnout applies to the mid-term primaries, too.

    I still doubt the Dems can get to 17, though.

  5. John says:

    What is a “vigorous ‘front porch’ campaign”? A front porch campaign is the opposite of a vigorous campaign – it’s when the candidate just sits at home and doesn’t really campaign. I am forced to conclude that the author doesn’t have any idea what a front porch campaign is.

  6. witless chum says:

    Obama won Michigan 54 percent to 45 percent for Romney and the Republicans have drawn themselves nine of 14 congressional seats. Only one race was really close and it’s the hardest one to gerrymander because it’s huge and geographically weird, including the whole U.P. and part of the northern lower peninsula.

    And Republicans have both chambers of the state legislature. In the last redistricting they flipped my township, adjoining Kalamazoo, in with the city. This resulted in a something like 80 percent Dem state house district in the city and township while removing our heavily Democrat township from the district that included three Republican, but lower population townships which made for like a 55 to 45 Republican district.

  7. JMG says:

    Dave, you are very probably right, but the Republican brand is extremely unpopular right now and they show little indication they’ll do anything to make it more popular in the next two years.

  8. dollared says:

    Wisconsin. Voters were 53-47 Democrat in the state assembly and senate elections, and the Republicans ended up with a majority in both houses.

  9. Davis X. Machina says:

    Hey, Article IV, section four guarantees you a Republican form of government, doesn’t it?

  10. Jameson Quinn says:

    Of course, a gerrymandering advantage is inherently somewhat fragile. This is not, in itself, a reason for optimism; but the fact that Republicans got more seats than their proportion of the vote suggests, means that republicans won by smaller margins on average than Democrats, so *if* there were a tidal wave election for the Ds, it would involve more seats than a demographically-similar-sized tidal wave for the Rs.

    Since this only comes into play for numbers over around 15 seats in either direction, though, it’s probably not a real factor.

    • tonycpsu says:

      This is true, but they’ve gotten pretty damned scientific about it. If you look at the PA map, the closest Republican win this year was in my district, PA-12 (which was combined with the old PA-04 in the redistricting process.) The result was 52-48 in what should have been a good year for PA Democrats (Obama carried the state relatively comfortably, Bob Casey held his seat in the Senate, etc.)

      Now, since my district’s merger and election result replaced two pro-life gun-nut “fiscal conservative” Democrats with one pro-life gun-nut “fiscal conservative” Republican, I didn’t shed any tears, but it shows that getting a good Democratic candidate to take this seat isn’t going to be a picnic. And this was the closest result in this election!

      After PA-12, the closest R win was PA-03 at 54-41. Then PA-16 at 55-38, then a couple of 57-43s (PA-08 and PA-15). Assuming a sizable 10% swing in the next Democratic wave election (which I really don’t think is going to happen in 2014) and a roughly equal caliber of candidates from this year, we’d be able to flip all of these, and maybe some others, but we’d only be at 10D-8R in that very optimistic scenario.

      Not looking good for Pennsyltucky until 2022 at the earliest.

  11. [...] net gain of 17 seats in order to reclaim the House, I’m as unconvinced today as I was 10 months ago when I wrote the following: Even if structural conditions are solid and a tailwind is at the back [...]

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