Two House Handicappers Punch the Donkey

By coincidence, I assume, two big names in the electoral handicapping biz came out with initial thoughts about the House landscape for 2014 today.

At the Wall Street Journal, Larry Sabato (with Kyle Kondik) took a macro approach, mainly noting the historical record suggesting the kind of gains Democrats would need to regain control of the House:

Since the start of the modern two-party system in the mid-19th century, the party of an incumbent president has never captured control of the House from the other party in a midterm election. While many presidents have held the House for their party, in 35 of 38 midterms since the Civil War the incumbent’s party has lost ground.

Two of those three exceptions, however, did occur in the last fifteen years (Democrats in 1998 and Republicans in 2002).

After noting the advantages Republicans enjoy in the House thanks to redistricting and superior vote distribution efficiency, Sabato and Kondik come up with this daunting if not particularly well-documented benchmark:

Based on historical measures, it would take a massive popular preference for Democrats to overcome their logistical disadvantage, perhaps an almost unheard-of lead of 13 points in the generic ballot questions pollsters use (“will you vote Democratic or Republican for House in the next election?”). Currently, the generic ballot shows a slight Democratic lead of two to three points.

Meanwhile, Roll Call‘s Stu Rothenberg takes the micro approach, and looks at specific districts where Democrats would need to make the gains necessary to produce a net gain of 17 seats and win control of the House:

[L]ooking over the list of 30 Republicans who won by less than 10 points, I see no more than 11 who deserve to be on a list of initially vulnerable GOPers. But let’s be generous and add Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (who is likely to again win a narrow victory) to the list, bringing it to an even dozen.

To that dozen, add two California districts held by Republicans that voted for Obama — currently represented by David Valadao and Gary G. Miller — that the GOP won either because of a Democratic recruiting problem or the state’s runoff process. Given the fundamentals of Miller’s district, his seat is a Democratic takeover waiting to happen.
Now, add districts where Obama almost won and Democrats had relatively weak House candidates. That would include two districts in Pennsylvania — now held by GOP incumbents Patrick Meehan and Michael G. Fitzpatrick — and one in Ohio (held by freshman Rep. David Joyce).

That makes 17 districts where Democrats start with realistic opportunities to make gains. The list could grow, of course, with GOP retirements, unusually strong Democratic recruits or redrawn districts in Florida and Texas. But 17 districts are not nearly enough opportunities to give Democrats a decent chance of taking back the House.

There are, of course, vulnerable Democratic seats as well:

At least 11 Democratic incumbents start off at risk: Arizona’s Ann Kirkpatrick and Ron Barber, California’s Raul Ruiz, Florida’s Patrick Murphy and Joe Garcia, Georgia’s John Barrow, Massachusetts’ John F. Tierney, New Hampshire’s Carol Shea-Porter, North Carolina’s Mike McIntyre, Texas’ Pete Gallego and Utah’s Jim Matheson.

Seven of these Democrats sit in Romney districts, and strong GOP recruiting in a handful of additional districts could make more Democrat-held seats (Minnesota Rep. Collin C. Peterson’s is a good example) vulnerable.

At this point in the cycle, Democrats probably need to put at least another two dozen additional districts into play — in addition to the ones I have cited above — and hold most of their own vulnerable seats to have a chance of netting 17 seats in the midterm elections. It’s a very tall order.

I don’t know that this last projection of “needed seats in play” is based on anything but a guess, but clearly Rothenberg wants to show that a Democratic takeover is just not happening under current conditions.

I don’t necessarily disagree, but do recall the widespread belief at this point a decade ago that Republican control of the House was “locked in” until the next redistricting cycle. Then 2006 happened.

2006, of course, was a second-term midterm for a Republican, not a Democratic president, and one whose approval ratings had fallen off dramatically. That was also before today’s exceptional alignment of the midterm electorate with the older and whiter GOP coalition had taken full shape. But while Sabato and Rothenberg’s warnings to Democrats are entirely legitimate, election “rules” are made to be broken, as they have been so often in recent history.

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.