Talk to a lot of political operatives and election handicappers and a general narrative emerges. The GOP House majority is in jeopardy. Ironically, many of these same individuals a mere few months ago were saying the GOP majority was safe due to redistricting and natural voter clustering.
Quite a 180, eh? It’s hard to blame them. They are taking their cues from polls like Quinnipiac (released last week) which showed Democrats ahead 54-38 percent on the question of which party voters would like to see control Congress.
Ed Kilgore, a long-time Democratic analysts (notably wrong about both 2014 and 2016, said of the poll, “A new poll shows the kind of numbers that if they become common could definitely portend not just a ‘wave’ but a veritable tsunami. Quinnipiac’s latest national poll mainly drew attention for showing some really terrible assessments of Donald Trump. But its congressional generic ballot was a shocker. Quinnipiac stated the poll was five points better for Democrats than it was for Republicans at their high-water mark in 2013.
It’s not impossible Democrats can take control of the House. Writing for the Washington Examiner back in February, Michael Barone stated the 24 seats Democrats need to gain a majority is not an impossible number. Swings in 2006 and 2010 featured many more seats switching hands. However, the increased level of partisanship makes these gains harder to achieve.
So, clearly such gains are not impossible to achieve. Proponents of an emerging wave point to the generic ballot numbers and Trump’s popularity. On the generic ballot question, Democrats lead by about six points 18 months out. Republicans had a similar lead in October, 2010.
But, here’s the thing. The generic ballot question has often overestimated Democratic support. For example, in 2006, Democrats garnered 52.3 percent of the House vote while Republicans got a meager 44 percent and change. Yet, the Realclearpolitics average of polls on the eve of the election showed Democrats with an 11.5 percent lead. Last year, the same bias emerged, though to a much lesser extent. The final generic ballot had Republicans up by a .1 percent. They won by about a point. So, the generic ballot question has tended to overestimate Democrats success than Republicans.
Geography is also an important factor here (as is redistricting). Republicans won the popular vote by about 6 percent in 2010. They won 63 new seats. Along with their gains in the states they set about ensuring they had a durable majority via redistricting. As a result, Democrats will need a bigger margin than Republicans in 2010 to gain a majority.
This is a factor a lot of analysts missed in 2010. Republicans, even without redistricting, are better distributed across the country and that means Democrats start at a natural disadvantage. It is why a Clinton popular vote victory of 2 million votes results in losing a majority of House districts and a 306-232 Electoral College loss.
Put by somebody else, “The way district lines are currently drawn benefits Republicans by distributing GOP voters more efficiently than Democratic voters. So, all else being equal, we would probably expect Republicans to win more seats than Trump’s approval rating alone indicates,” Harrey Enten notes at FiveThirtyEight.com.
Before 2010, all Democrats needed to do was win the popular vote to take the House. But, after 2010, when Republicans locked in their gains, the party’s efforts became tougher. Doing some quick math, and building off the Daily Kos’s median seat district average, to win 24 seats Democrats might need as much as a 9 percent victory nationally to marginally take the House.
We can see if this analysis holds water by doing a simple analysis. In 2006, Democrats won the House vote by 7.9 percent popular vote margin which translated into a 7.2 percent margin in the number of seats won (233-202). In 2010, when Republicans won by 6.7 percent they held 11 percent more seats than Democrats (keep in mind these elections were fought under old lines.). But fast forward to 2016 and a Republican win of a single percent led to them winning a whopping 55.4 percent of all seats.
Again, doing some quick math here, that means a GOP win of a single percent last year led to the GOP garnering an 11 percent advantage in the number of seats won. Democrats would need a minimum of a six point victory nationally (all things being equal) to take the House as a result.
Historically, we have seen quite an influx of wave elections. Supposedly, enthusiasm in these elections made the difference (or lack thereof). So Democrats crashing town halls should matter right? Well, anecdotally, if that were the case, then many party higher-ups would not be worried the party is failing to create a compelling message to draw back working class Millennials and older voters.
There are systemic disadvantages the party is facing. Even in a wave election, no more than 10 to 15 percent of all House seats are really in play. Splashing cold water on the idea dozens of seats can be in play even in a bad cycle for the incumbent party are these startling numbers from Ballotpedia. In 2016, “380 of the 393 House incumbents seeking re-election won, resulting in an incumbency rate of 96.7%. The average margin of victory in U.S. House races was 37.1 percent.” In 2014, the last midterm election, “[t]he average margin of victory was 35.8 percent in 2014, slightly higher than the average margin in 2012 of 31.8 percent,” Ballotpedia reported. Further, 2014 saw only 49 out of 435 races were decided by margins of ten percent or less. while a whopping 318 seats were decided by 20 points or more.
Adding to the disadvantage Democrats face is the fact only 35 districts voted for the President of one party and a Congressional member of another. There are 23 Clinton/GOP districts and 12 Trump/Democratic districts in America. This means Democrats would need to hold all their Trump seats, flip every Clinton/GOP district and find another true red district to flip. It is possible this could occur but the odds are against it.
We are long past the period when Democrats could flip dozens of Bush districts like they did in 2006. Indeed, that year, Democrats won three districts that reelected Bush with over 60 percent of the vote (mostly in the South where Democrats are all but extinct).
Heading into 2006, 18 Republicans occupied seats in districts carried by John Kerry in 2004, and Democrats had to defend 42 of their own seats in districts carried by George W. Bush. Even so, Democrats were able to win back control of the House, making a net gain of 31 seats. In addition to winning 10 of the 18 Republican seats in districts carried by Kerry in 2004, Democrats won 20 Republican seats in districts carried by Bush and won an open seat previously held by then-Representative Bernie Sanders. They even captured three districts in which Bush won at least 60 percent of the vote. Of course, one also should not forget flipping seats costs money.
The RNC and NRCC are sitting on piles of dough. Meanwhile, the DCCC and DNC are shadows of their former selves after relying so heavily on Clinton to fill their coffers. For example, the RNC raised $9.6 million in April and had $41.4 million on hand while the DNC raised $4.7 million, had $8.8 million in the bank, but spent more than it raised.
All the above said, Trump’s weak approval ratings give Democrats hope. If he keeps dropping his party may fracture and Democrats might be able to pick up the pieces. Uh huh, does that not sound at all similar to 2016 when pollsters thought Trump had no shot with over 60 percent of voters disliking the candidate?
Trump’s approval started out at about 44 approving and 44 disapproving. As of now, he sits around 40 percent for a drop of about four percent. Even considering those strongly approving have dropped few voters have moved from approving to disapproving. But consider that Obama, the last President to compare against, started out with 63 percent approval and 20 disapproving. By the time of the midterms in 2010, he was underwater by four percent meaning his approval dropped by a whopping 25 percent.
The idea Trump is an albatross around Republican Congressional candidates necks has already been tested. For example, while Democrats argue Kansas was about Trump the GOP candidate embraced Trump when polling showed the race neck and neck. He won by seven points. More recently, in Montana, Republican Greg Gianforte embraced Trump at virtually every turn and won by six points (outperforming his internal polling).
Democrats and pundits point to GA-6 as a bellwether for 2018. But so much money has poured into the race is it really? Right now, Democrats seem to lack the cash to turn all the suburban, red leaning districts like GA-6, into competitive contests. Even if Democrats flip the district, the prohibitive cost of doing so would mean they would never be able to do something similar in 23 other districts.
Finally, there is one other factor to be considered. Democratic weakness with the working class. It is where the bulk of Trump’s support originated and continues to be found. This is where the Democrats lack of a message matters. Endlessly bashing trump while failing to put forth ideas that appeal to voters is not a recipe for a wave.
Democratic weaknesses with this voting group are compounded by the fact they are very efficiently distributed in many swing districts across the country. As a result, many formerly Democratic districts such as in IA, MN, PA and OH, which could help anchor a Democratic majority, are out of reach for the party meaning they have to stretch their gains to even have a shot at controlling the House.
Therein lies the rub. Democrats certainly cannot retake the House if they run 35 points behind with this group like they did in 2016. Indeed, they may not even be able to take the House if they do as well with this group as they did in the wave election of 2006 (losing by 10 points). Democrats did not even come close to this number in their best election in the last decade (2012).
These are formidable obstacles to overcome even in the best possible cycle for a political party. If Democrats struggle in 2018, not only will they fail to have leverage in Congress, but in the states Republicans will likely remain strong and draw in another “safe” majority until 2030 (though keep in mind the “safe” GOP majority created by redistricting is now in “trouble”). If Democrats don’ get the wave they expect in 2018, they could find themselves locked out of power for many years to come.