Almost one year from Election Day 2012 and Democrats and Republicans are feeling good about their prospects. At least for the House. Democrats are enthused by the fact the DCCC outraised the NRCC 2-1 in September and they have what they view as many strong challengers in swing GOP held seats. Republicans are similarly excited because control of state legislatures has allowed vulnerable districts to be shored up, they have strong challengers to vulnerable Democrats and because Obama is at the top of the ticket. So both parties feel good about 2012, but in truth what is the reality of Democrats regaining the House in 2012?
The electoral math for Democrats looks neutral at best. Democrats would have to pick off low-hanging fruit in Democratic leaning suburbs like PA-6, 7, 8 and 15. These seats have been held by Republicans since 2000 or were taken in the wave election of 2010. Then Democrats would need to proceed to win swing seats they lost in the Midwest and Rustbelt, seats which until recently have trended Democratic ( redistricting made many of them even less Democratic). Lastly, and this is the big if for Democrats, they need to somehow make inroads in an increasingly inhospitable South. Taking 25 seats in the rest of the country while not gaining any in the South is unlikely at best and impossible at worst. Even with the GOP having won so many seats to defend in 2012 Democrats have vulnerable incumbents to defend as well. In states like Arkansas Democrats hold on their sole Congressional seat has become more tenuous, illustrating just how thin a needle Democrats would have to thread electorally.
Money-wise House Congressional Democrats and candidates are sure to benefit from the DCCC and the president’s re-election campaign. Whether they can raise money on their own is a different story. Democrats have at least a dozen battle-tested candidates (former incumbents or former candidates) running or leaning running but the rest are relatively new to politics. Some will get instant support from the progressive left while yet others may appeal to the unique constituencies of their districts. They will still need to raise money on their own though. In 2010 GOP candidates benefitted from a wave election that made having more money at the end of many races immaterial. With generic ballot polls tight and Congressional approval ratings low raising money could be more crucial than ever. The verdict is out on whether individual candidates will be able to do so.
Redistricting looks to be a wash for both parties in terms of seat switches. Democrats are sure to gain seats in Illinois and California. Republicans are sure to gain seats in North Carolina, Utah, South Carolina, Georgia, Missouri and perhaps Indiana, Arkansas and Michigan. Big wildcards remain though with New York, Florida, and Pennsylvania yet to start their redistricting. Texas’s map is mired in a court challenge. Republicans, as mentioned above, were able to shore up vulnerable seats and they will also likely do so in PA (they control the process) and work hard to do so in NY (split control) and Florida (independent panel handles redistricting).
The big wild-cards for 2012 that could swing control of the chamber in 2012 are the economy and the president. The economy continues to struggle, unemployment is not shrinking and wages are flat. All this has the potential to either help or hurt Democratic candidates. But what could hurt Democrats the most is who is at the top of the ballot in 2012 and whether he can excite his supporters as he did in 2008. Then President-Elect Barack Obama brought millions of new voters to the polls who swung many Congressional Democrats over the top in 2008. Whether the president can bring them back is may be crucial. Moreover, so will whether the president can win independents like he did in 2008. With the president at 42% approval (according to average monthly Gallup surveys), polling even less among independents and this is looking less and less likely. And that spells trouble for Congressional Democrats.
A year is a long time in politics. But the fundamental dynamics of 2012 do not appear to favor Democrats. At best, they point to a draw in the House. Redistricting looks like a draw, money-wise the DCCC is winning (but not necessarily individual candidates), and electorally the map looks to go through a very unhospitable South. The big wild-cards are the economy and the president. So for now it remains a stretch to say Democrats will win back the House in 2012.