2014 House Prospects

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:

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