U.S. House Locked and Loaded

No, this post isn’t about gun regulation, though that’s one of the issues affected by the political phenomenon it’s actually about. I argued yesterday that Barack Obama may seem serene because the obstacles he faces in governing are so immovable that any failures he has are beyond his control, and the whole gridlocked mess will soon enough be somebody else’s problem.

Earlier I noted here that Alan Abramowitz has offered a best-case scenario for Democratic House candidates in 2014, and it falls well short of a majority. Now comes Charlie Cook with a parallel argument: there just aren’t enough competitive districts right now to enable a landslide by either side:

Using The Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index, which ascertains how the presidential voting patterns in each congressional district differ from the national average, we took a look at the 2004 and 2008 presidential-election results in congressional districts (the final PVI incorporating the 2012 results will be available in the next month or so), and compared them with previous years. In 1998, there were 164 swing districts, which we define as a district with a Democratic or Republican PVI of 5 points or less. The swing districts outnumbered the 148 solid “R” districts where Republicans had an edge of more than 5 points, and the 123 solid “D” districts where Democrats had an edge of more than 5 points.

The number of swing districts dropped from 164 in 1998 to 132 by 2000, to 111 in 2002, then to 108 for two elections (2004 and 2006). The 2008 and 2010 cycles both had 103 swing districts, and the total slipped to 99 in the 2012 cycle. Currently, 190 districts have a Republican PVI over 5 points, 28 seats short of a majority; 146 districts have a Democratic PVI over 5 points, 72 seats short of a majority.

To put it another way, Republicans can hang onto a majority in the House even if they lose more than two out of three “swing districts.” Add in (a) the historic pattern of the party holding the White House usually losing House seats in midterms, particularly second-term midterms, and more importantly (b) the recently emerging strong Republican advantage in midterm turnout patterns–and it’s going to be a very tough row to hoe for the Donkey Party. And BTW, this matters even if all this forecasting is inaccurate, because it affects how congressional Republicans will behave (and the 2014 Senate landscape is pretty good for them as well).

Are Republicans capable of throwing these advantages away? It’s certainly possible. The famous “Gingrich Congress” of 1995-1999 managed in 1998 to produce a rare departure from the “six-year itch” pattern I noted above via its extremism and irresponsibility. Perhaps Gingrich’s heirs will decide they are all “rebranded” and rebooted and ready to re-assume the natural governing role God intended for them when he dictated the Declaration of Independence to the Founders and warned them America was not to be a democracy.

Either way, I don’t think House Republicans are looking to surrender their illusions any time soon. As we used to say down south about bad people, they “need a beating.” It’s just unlikely they’ll get a sound enough beating in 2014.

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.