Democrats Have an Uphill Climb to Retake the House

Democrats Have an Uphill Climb to Retake the House

By Sean Trende - November 21, 2011

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).

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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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