Odds Of A Democratic House Takeover Low

The odds for a party switch in the House of Representatives remain quite low.

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Democrats hoping that their part will be able to take back control of the House of Representatives are finding that, at least for the moment, political reality is telling them that the odds of this happening are very low:

[C]hances that Democrats can gain the 17 seats needed to recapture control of the House appear remote. Republicans have better prospects of picking up the six seats they need to regain the Senate – but not drastically better.

After midterm “wave elections” in 2006 and 2010, the calmer outlook this time reduces the stakes of electoral competition next year. That, in turn, may expand opportunities for bipartisan action on such issues as immigration, modest gun control measures and deficit reduction.

“We’re going to maintain our majority,” Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, said in an interview. But with Mr. Obama not going anywhere either, he added, “I’m committed to seeing ways we can work with this White House, knowing full well we have big differences.”

“I think what you’re seeing emerge now is an appetite for achievement,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip, who is a solid favorite to win re-election next year. “We want to do some things – or at least try – on a bipartisan basis.”

The ideological and political gap between the parties remains wide in any event. But the lure of seizing control of the House or Senate, and winning the presidency, has widened that gap in recent years by injecting all-or-nothing electoral drama into virtually every high-profile dispute.

In 2006, Democrats used unhappiness over the Iraq war, the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina and other Republican setbacks to recapture House and Senate majorities. When the financial crisis hit two years later, they captured the presidency.

In 2010, House Republicans used continued economic weakness and a backlash against Obama administration policies to create their own comeback wave. Last year Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, set his sights on winning control of the Senate and ensuring Mr. Obama’s defeat.

As it turned out, voters last November preserved the existing balance of power. Odds favor their doing the same next time.

As ths is week’s fund-raising jaunt suggests, Mr. Obama is lending his energies to Congressional Democrats now that he no longer has to campaign for himself. But history and circumstance argue strongly against Democrats retaking the House.

Since voters tend to blame the White House incumbent for their discontents, the president’s party has lost House seats in all but three midterm elections in the past century. The number of times the president’s party has gained 17 seats in a midterm election: zero.

Democratic campaign operatives say they will defy history and gain at least a few seats. Among other factors, they point to strong fund-raising and the Republican Party’s national image problems.

But district lines drawn after the 2010 census circumscribe their opportunities. Charlie Cook, a political handicapper, estimates that fewer than 30 Republican-held seats are even at risk, and Democrats themselves have slightly more in jeopardy.

The midterm electorate tends to be heavier than in presidential years with older voters and whites – both important Republican constituencies. In Senate races, Republicans once again boast an auspicious map of possibilities

Greg Sargent sees similarly long odds against the Democrats maintaining control:

The basics are pretty straightforward. The party holding the White House tends to lose seats in midterm elections — as Democrats did in 2010 — especially in the sixth year of a two-term presidency, as Republicans did in 2006. In fact, there’s only been one case of the party in the White House gaining at that point; Democrats gained a few seats during the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998.

And in fact, a seat-by-seat analysis of the 2014 cycle so far, although very early, point to how difficult it will be for the Democrats to gain 17 (net) seats; so does large-picture analysis.

As Sargent goes on to note, there are two ways to look at House elections. One way is to pay attention to the Generic Congressional Vote polling question, which essentially asks poll respondents if they intend to vote for the Republican or the Democrat in the upcoming Congressional elections. As a general rule, if the party in control of the House is in the lead in this poll or the numbers are close, then the probably is that the incumbent party will hold onto control of the House and may even gain seats. If the party out of power is in the lead, then that suggests that they will gain seats in the election.

Presently, RealClearPolitics gives the Democrats an average of a 6.8 point advantage in the Generic Ballot, however there are a few caveats worth noting here. First of all, we are still 19 months away from the 2014 elections. There are plenty of things that are going to happen between now and then that will influence these numbers and the course of the campaign. Indeed, if you go back an examine the Generic Ballot heading toward the 2010 midterms, there were many wild fluctuations in public sentiment in the time between 2009 and Election Day in November 2010. More importantly, there was no indication this early in the 2010 cycle that the Republican Party was headed for a massive landslide that would give them control of the House for the first time since 2006. Given this, it’s kind of pointless to look at the Generic Ballot today and assume that it will tell you anything about what’s likely to happen in November 2014.

The other way to look at House elections is on a seat-by-seat basis. This is what analysts like Larry Sabato and Charlie Cook do when they release their rankings of Congressional seats as “Safe Republican,” Safe Democrat,” and the like. Given that there really is no such thing as a national ballot for the House of Representatives, and it is individual characteristics about Congressional Districts that typically have a huge influence over how an election turns out there, there’s a fairly good argument that this is the better method by which to view the race for control of the House. Presently, most seat-by-seat analyses of 2014 suggest that the GOP will have little trouble holding on to its majority but, as with the Generic Ballot, it’s still far too early to reach any kind of definitive conclusion.

Taking all of those caveats into account, though, there are several reasons to believe that the GOP will retain its majority and that Democratic dreams of controlling all of Congress once again will fall short.

First of all, history indicates that the party in control of the White House tends to lose seats in the House of Representatives in mid-term elections, especially the mid-term election in the 6th year of an eight year Presidency. The only time the incumbent party has gained seats under these circumstances was in 2002 when Republicans gained eight seats in the first election after the September 11th attacks, and in 1998 when Democrats gained five seats while Republicans were pursuing the Monica Lewinsky story down a rabbit hole. Outside of those two elections, both of which were held amid historically unique circumstances, the President’s party has lost seats in the House in every election since World War II. While past performance is not necessarily an indicator of future result, this is a strong argument in favor of the argument that, at the very least,  the GOP is likely to hold on to the House in 2014. In addition to the lessons of history, there’s also the fact that turnout in Midterm elections is far different from from turnout in Presidential elections.  As a general rule, turnout is always lower and it tends to be more heavily dominated by older voters, both factors which tend to favor Republicans over Democrats.  Finally, the Republicans maintain a strong advantage in the House thanks to the benefits of the redistricting that occurred after the 2010 Census. As I’ve noted previously, the number of seats that are actually “winnable” is far lower today than it was 30 years ago. This is another reason to believe that the odds are generally in favor of the GOP holding the House.

There are many things that could change in the next 19 months, and come November 2014 we could find ourselves with another “wave” election that would sweep the Democrats back into power in the House. Were it to happen, though, it would be an historically anomaly that would have to overcome structural advantages that lean heavily in favor of the GOP. For that reason at least, I wouldn’t be holding my breath waiting for a switch in party control in the House next year.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2014, Congress, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Dividist says:

    Agreed. I’ve arrived at the happy conclusion that we will continue to have a divided government through 2016.

    The House has always been the domain of Tip O’Neal’s dictum “All politics is local” and historically difficult to flip.

    As you note, it generally it takes a nationalized “wave” election to flip majorities in the House. The last three times the House flipped majorities was in 2010, 2006, and 1994. There are common threads in all three elections: One party controlled the executive and both legislative branches going into the elections; The party in control overreached while in power; The electorate reacted by flipping control of the House to the party out of power.

    Since we have divided government going into the 2014 election, there is little or no chance of a nationalized election reaction against Republicans in power – because – mostly they’re not. House Republicans are just slowing Obama and the Democrats down, which is exactly why the electorate put them in charge of the House in 2010. John Boehner will still be Speaker of the House in 2016.

    The Senate is also interesting as many of the Dem seats up this cycle came in on the coattails of Obama’s 2008 wave election. But we can not overstate the capacity of the the Republicans to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. They blew a realistic opportunity to take majority control of the Senate in 2010, then squandered an even better opportunity to take control of the Senate in 2012. They still have an outside chance to take the Senate in 2014, but that seems unlikely given their propensity to nominate clown candidates to compete for what would otherwise be competitive or safe seats.

    Past is not always prologue, but history is a pretty reliable guide to US electoral politics. The most likely outcome in 2014 is that Republicans will increase their seats in both the House and Senate.

    Full Disclosure: Much of this comment is plagiarized from myself in a December post.

  2. Competition is good.  With Obama as a self-inflicted prematurely lame duck, this balance of power since the November elections seems to be working reasonably well — no good reason to change except from the perspective of hyper-partisans.

  3. edmondo says:

    Flipping the House? LOL

    If Obama comes out with another budget that cuts social security benefits, the Democrats will have to start worrying about how they keep what they have. Apparently the Dems have learned nothing from 2010 – when your base stays home because they see no differnce between you and the other guy, you lose, BIG.

  4. @Let’s Be Free:

    Competition is good.

    I absolutely agree.

    The sad fact is, however, that the vast majority of our electoral districts are not competitive at all.

  5. stonetools says:

    Another way to look at it :

    In two of the last four cycles the House majorities have flipped.
    Doesn’t look so far fetched when you put it like that, does it?
    The Democrats need to ignore trends that date back to the days of Andrew Jackson and Rutherford B. Hayes and focus on what can be done NOW, with data mining, social media, and a ground game that you can target with constantly updating poll data and Google Earth- two things Jackson and Hayes didn’t have.
    If the country gets tired of Republican intransigence, another wave just may happen.

  6. Blue Shark says:

    …Odds of Obama beating Clinton in 2008 = LOW

    …Odds of Obama being re-elected in 2012 with unemployment about 8% = LOW

    …Odds of the House flipping in 2014 = LOW

    This man and his electoral team have been underestimated ever since he ran to become a US Senator.

  7. al-Ameda says:

    Maybe if a few states reconsidered secession again the House could go Democratic. All it would take is for Obama to let the states that want to secede go – do not try to stop them.

  8. Mr. Prosser says:

    I can only hope my present representative takes his talking points from Louis Gohmert and Michele Bachmann. Unfortunately he’s a few steps above them on the smarts level.

  9. Dividist says:

    @Blue Shark:

    … Odds of the “demographically challenged’ Republican Party “in shambles” after being “destroyed” in the 2008 “post partisan” Obama “landslide” when “left-of-center” America “rejected GOP policies” to subsequently pick up 63 seats and take the House in 2010? = Non-existent.

    At least those were the odds according to Democrats who, like all partisans in power, have a near infinite capacity for self-delusion.

    The GOP is less damaged now than they were after 2008. Obama is much less compelling a figure and politically weaker than he was after 2008. The Democrats are over-reaching but not quite so far, nor quite as delusional as they were after 2008. 2014 will be more like 2010 than either 2008 or 2012.

    The GOP will pick up seats in the House in 2014. I’ll take that bet with anybody at any stakes.

    They’ll probably pick up seats in the Senate also, but I will not bet on it due to their demonstrated capacity for self-destruction in Senate races.

  10. stonetools says:

    @Dividist:

    The GOP will pick up seats in the House in 2014. I’ll take that bet with anybody at any stakes.

    They’ll probably pick up seats in the Senate also, but I will not bet on it due to their demonstrated capacity for self-destruction in Senate races.

    I’ll take that bet and raise you the Dems actually picking up a seat in the Senate if Collins retires.

  11. Dividist says:

    @stonetools:

    Stakes? Like I said – I won’t bet on the Senate.

  12. stonetools says:

    @Dividist:

    Bragging rights, I guess. This is the Internet, dude. There’s no real betting here.

  13. edmondo says:

    @stonetools:

    You are totally delusional. Your Obama-bot is showing. Even if Collins retires, the Dems will not hold West Virginia nor South Dakota; they are at best an even money shot at holding Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana and North Carolina. Even rabid partisians need to have one foot in reality.

  14. Dividist says:

    @stonetools:

    Oh, I dunno, depends on the integrity of those making the wager I guess. I won a very nice bottle of 18 year old single malt scotch on a similar bet with a delusional Dem in a comment stream leading into the 2010 midterm. Although I am nursing the bottle, I anticipate needing a replacement by 2013.

    Even bragging rights can be quantified. It could be something on the order of a public comment here on OTB acknowledging ones own failings as a political prognosticator, extolling the genius of the victor, and a general disclosure to all that nothing the loser ever says in the comments should ever be considered credible. Something that would be useful to link to for the two years following the election.

  15. edmondo says:

    @Dividist:

    That’s some pretty steep stakes you are throwing out there. If stonetools wasn’t on this blog posting DNC talking points everyday then they might have to actually pay to get them distributed.

  16. stonetools says:

    @edmondo:

    DNC talking points? Wrong again, Bob. I’m just not willing to concede that 2014 will be a disaster for the Democrats from 18 months out. It may turn out that way , but a lot of things can happen between now and then. Given the volatility of the electorate the past four or five cycles, only an idiot would make any kind of serious bet this far out.

  17. stonetools says:

    @Dividist:

    I’m betting you were a genius in 2010 and not so much a genius in 2006, 2008 and 2012.

  18. Dave Schuler says:

    Hmm. Nate Silver, the seer du jour gives Republicans better chances of taking the Senate than Democrats have of taking the House.

    It may also have escaped some of you but the president isn’t on the ballot in 2014. Unless things start making a distinct change for the better I expect anti-incumbent sentiments to become quite strong and, given who’s got what to defend in 2014, I tend to agree with Mr. Silver.

    My suspicion is we continue the status quo: Democrats hold the Senate, Republicans hold the House. Second most likely scenario: Republicans hold the House and take control of the Senate.

  19. edmondo says:

    stonetools A:

    “….only an idiot would make any kind of serious bet this far out.”

    stonetools B:

    “I’ll take that bet and raise you…”

    Well. at least you’ve exposed yourself for what you really are.

  20. wr says:

    @Let’s Be Free: “this balance of power since the November elections seems to be working reasonably well ”

    Well, sure, unless you want to do somethng like improve the lot of American citizens who are suffering needlessly.

    Oh, wait, you’re a Republican. Never mind.

  21. Dividist says:

    @stonetools:

    Wrong again.

    My predictions have been a mixed bag, but they are all out there on my blog. Feel free to look them up if you are truly interested. Also, my predictions and preferences are generally not the same.

    But since you asked…

    I always vote for divided government. So..

    In 2006 I advocated a straight D vote, and was pleasantly surprised by the outcome. I thought the D’s would pick up seats, had a chance for a majority, but it would be close, and most likely they would only take the Senate.

    In 2008 I advocated a vote for McCain, but predicted he would lose and the consequent One Party Democratic Rule would be a disaster for the country. Porkulus and Obamacare passing on purely partisan votes reinforced for me just how bad unified one party government legislation can get.

    In 2010 I advocated a straight R vote, and was again pleasantly surprised by the outcome. I expected the R’s to pick up seats in both houses & again thought they might take the Senate, but didn’t think there was any chance of them actually retaking enough seats to reclaim the House. My election bet was with a guy who thought the Dems would not lose seats. Like I said – delusional. Much like your statements in this thread about 2014.

    In 2012 I advocated a vote for Obama. Since, in my view, there was zero chance for the D’s to take the House, and a small but real chance that Romney might win and have the coattails to pull the Senate, the best odds to ensure continued divided government was to reelect Obama. I was completely wrong about the Senate in 2012. I didn’t think the R’s could actually lose seats.

    In 2014 I’ll advocate a straight R vote, and as stated I predict the R’s will pick up seats in both the House and Senate. We’ll see.

    In general, using history as guide, I usually get the partisan direction right for President, House and Senate but not the size & scope.

    I see that you are completely unwilling to back up your comments by making any wager for any stakes whatsoever on the outcome of the House.

    Understandable. And prudent. Thanks for playing. It was fun.

  22. stonetools says:

    @edmondo:

    (Shrug)
    It wasn’t a serious bet. I thought that was obvious. Oh well…I overestimate someone’s intelligence again!

  23. stonetools says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Look, what Doug, you and Nate Silver are doing is quoting the conventional wisdom. Another way of looking at it is saying “Default settings matter” and the default setting for elections in the sixth year of an eight year Presidency is that the President’s party loses seats. Got it. Politics 101,sun rises tomorrow around 6am.
    Now all that is true, and its important to know the defaults. But it shouldn’t be a counsel of despair: it should be a challenge to think different. Now Obama has risen to that in the past; its up to the House and Senate Democrats to do that in 2014. I’m hoping they do.

  24. stonetools says:

    @Dividist:

    Here’s the bet I’ll take:

    ” I admit it’s wrong to bet against the conventional wisdom 18 months ahead of the elections and in absence of any relevant polls”.

    I’ll type that 5 times, if I lose.

    Happy now?

  25. @stonetools: BTW, is more than just conventional wisdom, it is the math of such factors as non-competitive districts and an astronomically high incumbent re-election rate (which are overlapping variables, to be sure).

    Still, I concur that it is a bit early to start the horse-race talk.

  26. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Dividist:

    I’m in an odd position of disagreeing with almost everything you said, yet mostly agreeing with your conclusion. I do think the House stays in Repub hands and they pick up strength in the Senate. I don’t think the Senate will flip (although they have a fightin’ chance) and its a toss up as to which party gains seats in the house.

    The electorate reacted by flipping control of the House to the party out of power.

    Your argument seems to rest on an idea that the house is in Republican control (and that the
    Repubs can pick up Senate seats) because there is a national electorate prefers a divided government. This is simply not true based on the best poll available: the past election.

    The majority of the nation voted for the Democrats in both the house and senate. Your argument falls apart because the elections for the house are not national elections. By design. The Republicans have done a great job of winning elections on a state level right before the census, giving them great Gerry mandering abilities. That’s not a criticism, the Dems would have gerrymandered the hell out of those states if they were in power. It’s a big art of what’s broken about our system. However to pretend that this means the nation prefers Republicans when clearly elections show otherwise is just folly.

    (Please excuse spelling and grammar–typed on an iPhone while riding the bus. )

  27. stonetools says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    Also too, at the state level, people seem to be moving AWAY from divided government . The red states tend more and more to have united Republican governments and the blue states are tending to united Democratic governments . Texas and California are harbingers of this trend.

    Come January, more than two-thirds of the states will be under single-party control, raising the prospect that bold partisan agendas — on both ends of the political spectrum — will flourish over the next couple of years.

    At the federal level, I think people’s patience is wearing thin with the constant budgetary “crises.” A couple more of those, especially if there is a government shutdown, and who knows what may happen in 2014.

  28. Dividist says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    “Your argument seems to rest on an idea that the house is in Republican control (and that the Repubs can pick up Senate seats) because there is a national electorate prefers a divided government.”

    Actually not. Apologies if not clear. My argument is that House is difficult and virtually impossible to flip in the absence of a relatively rare nationalized wave election.

    The Republicans will stay in control of the House because they are an incumbent majority, and because in House elections “all politics is local” (except when they are not), and the conditions do not exist for a nationalized wave election in 2014.

    I posit that a necessary condition for a nationalized wave election that flips the House is a one party unified government (Executive, Senate, House controlled by one party) in order to have an organizing focus for the usually inchoate self-cancelling independent vote to line up and vote against. Nobody votes for divided government (well – except me). People do vote against an entrenched over-reaching one party government. Like the GOP in 2006, and the Dems in 2010 and 1994.

  29. Kylopod says:

    @Blue Shark:

    …Odds of Obama beating Clinton in 2008 = LOW

    …Odds of Obama being re-elected in 2012 with unemployment about 8% = LOW

    …Odds of the House flipping in 2014 = LOW

    This man and his electoral team have been underestimated ever since he ran to become a US Senator.

    While I agree that Obama has often been underestimated, he’s not invincible–he wasn’t able to stop the 2010 Republican takeover of the House, for one. Also, you’re failing to consider that there are degrees to these things. Obama may have been the underdog when facing Hillary in the primaries, but he was always a serious candidate. Of course there’d never been a black nominee (much less president) before, but it had to happen at some point. Despite the bloviations of some pundits at the time, Obama’s ascendancy didn’t defy history in anything approaching the sense that a gain of more than 15 House seats by the president’s party during the president’s second term would.

  30. @Kylopod: I would even go so far as to say that “Odds of Obama beating Clinton in 2008 = LOW” is incorrect. It was more like “Odds of Obama beating Clinton in 2008 = REAL”.

    Hillary was the favorite going into 2008, but Obama was considered a real contender in 2008.

  31. stonetools says:

    @Kylopod:

    Despite the bloviations of some pundits at the time, Obama’s ascendancy didn’t defy history in anything approaching the sense that a gain of more than 15 House seats by the president’s party during the president’s second term would.

    I might disagree with that, but the point is that “difficult” doesn’t mean “impossible”. I’ll tell you what would make it “impossible” -saying that “history proves that it can’t be done. ” With that attitude, winning back the House is clearly impossible and the Democrats shouldn’t even waste their time trying.

    Also too, this comic book explanation of the problem with the argument from Electoral Precedent.

  32. Rob in CT says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    This.

    Nothing is written in stone, but the Dems have a tough road ahead. They’ve got a lot of Senate seats to hold, and the House is tough b/c of a combo of how the districts are drawn and the usual composition of the mid-term electorate (basically, important chunks of the Dem base don’t tend to show up).

    If the Dems want to hold serve (let alone gain!) they have to do a great job of getting their voters to show the hell up. Well, and/or the GOP can screw up massively. That’s not something you can bank on.

    I doubt there will be a 2010-style rout, but I’d guess the Dems lose seats in both chambers, but hanging on to the Senate by the skin of their teeth.