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Midterms Forecast: No Wave, Just Modest Gains

By Sean Trende - May 2, 2013

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There are only nine Democrats in districts Mitt Romney carried, and only 17 Republicans in districts Barack Obama carried. If we look at things in terms of Partisan Voting Index (how a party performs relative to national forces), there are only eight Republicans in districts with Democratic PVIs, and 15 Democrats in districts with Republican PVIs. This is in sharp contrast to 2010, when dozens of Democrats were running in districts with Republican PVIs. Again, this limits opportunities for both parties to post big gains.

The mediocre news is the president’s job approval, which as of Wednesday was 50 percent in Gallup, and 48.2 percent in the RCP Average. Here’s how that stacks up historically:

Josh Kraushaar joked in 2011 that the president’s job approval was right at the Mendoza Line, separating acceptable mediocrity from unacceptable mediocrity. That’s about where it is now. If he stays at this level, it will probably be a quiet election night. But if he slides much more, the Democrats start to get into really problematic territory.

Note also that, historically speaking, the president’s party has only gained seats when his job approval is above 60 percent. Reaching that level is not impossible by any stretch, but it’s a long haul from where we are today.

Finally, the ugly. The condition of the economy impacts the outcome of elections. There’s a bunch of ways to measure this, but an old standby, dating back to Edward Tufte’s watershed 1975 article on midterm election prediction, is real disposable income.

Right now, year-over-year RDI growth is pretty miserable, and this correlates with some rather unfortunate outcomes for presidential parties, all other things being equal.

The good news for Democrats is that this seems to be secondary to presidential job approval: You do see years like 1990, when a relatively popular president with an underexposed party had a fairly good midterm. You also see years like 2010, where RDI growth is strong, but the party fares poorly. We should also note that RDI-based presidential models fared poorly in 2012, so the relationship might be breaking down.

What happens when we put this all together? Democrats have quite a lot of work to do to take back the House. President Obama would probably have to get his job approval into the high 60s, and the economy probably has to take off. It would probably require a pro-Obama wave akin to 2010-in-reverse. Again, not impossible, but not very likely.

At the same time, things probably have to deteriorate quite a bit for the Democrats before Republicans can expect even low double-digit gains. There just aren’t enough vulnerable Democratic seats to expect big gains, absent some significant wave. Somewhere between a five-seat Democratic pickup and a 15 seat Republican gain seems a safe prediction for now. 

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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 strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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