Uphill Climb for House Democrats

I noted earlier today the possibility of a highly entertaining Al Franken/Michele Bachmann Senate race in 2014. But by and large, 2014 still seems a blessedly long time away–unless you are Emory’s Alan Abramowitz, who has already published an initial forecast for House races that year at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

Abramowitz notes all the reasons Republicans will have a built-in advantage in their effort to maintain control of the House in 2014: their existing margin (Democrats would need a net pickup of 17 seats to regain control); gerrymandering; and the historic “six-year itch” that makes the party controlling the White House almost always lose seats in midterms–and especially second-term midterms. But:

Given the historical pattern of midterm losses by the president’s party, is there any reason for Democrats to be hopeful about the outlook for 2014? The answer, surprisingly, is yes. First of all, there have been two exceptions to the rule of midterm losses by the president’s party since World War II, and they were both fairly recent. In 1998, Democrats gained four seats in Bill Clinton’s second midterm election and in 2002 Republicans gained eight seats in George W. Bush’s first midterm election. So it is possible for the president’s party to overcome the midterm jinx. More importantly, the circumstances of the 2014 midterm election indicate that this could very well happen again: A statistical forecasting model based on three factors that accurately predict the outcomes of midterm elections indicates that Democrats have a chance to gain seats in the House.

A big reason for Democratic optimism is Republican “over-exposure:” their success in narrowly hanging onto marginal seats they probably have no reason to hold. But while Abramowitz thinks Democrats have a decent chance to buck history and make gains or break even in House races, he also calculates that Dems would probably have to hold a 13-point advantage in the congressional generic ballot going into November of 2014 (they have a four-point advantage in early generic balloting right now) to “flip” the House. And that’s without taking into account the historically unusual partisan correlation of presidential and midterm turnout patterns (the subject which Tom Schaller tackled so knowledgeably at the same site last month).

So while the climb back to majority status in the House is by no means impossible for the Donkey Party, it’s still an uphill climb. But 2016 could be a completely different matter.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.