It’s almost two years until the midterm elections in 2014, so people can be excused their occasional flights of fancy. Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) released a memo to his colleagues arguing that the Democrats are well-poised to win a majority in the House in next year’s elections. His three-page memo has a veneer of plausibility to it. That veneer, however, is no match against the headwinds of reality.
In 2012, Democrats picked up eight seats in the House, leaving the GOP in the majority with 234 seats. In order to take control of the House in 2014, the Democrats will need a net gain of 17 seats. That would be an historic pick-up, given the generally lower-turnout election will not have the same tilt as a presidential electorate. The only President whose party gained seats in the sixth year of his term was Bill Clinton, when Democrats picked up five seats in the House.
The Democrats face a more fundamental challenge in the drive to win the majority. Many of the results are already “baked in” as a result of redistricting. Mitt Romney carried 225 districts in 2012, enough seats needed to form a majority in the House. As a result, Democrats need to win eight districts carried by Romney last year. Republicans hold 15 seats where Obama won the presidential vote. If these members survived the Obama turnout machine, it is hard to see them too vulnerable with Obama not on the ballot. Six Democrats currently hold districts whose voters chose Romney over Obama. Democrats will again have to defend these seats in a less favorable political climate.
Turnout for midterms is sharply lower than presidential years. The electorate in midterms, outside of other factors, tends to lean more Republican, as Republicans are more reliable voters than Democrats. In 2012, for example, the electorate was D+6, and in 2010 the electorate was even. Keep in mind, though, that Republicans won 234 seats from an electorate that leaned strongly toward the Democrats.
One hope for the Democrats is that Obama’s vaunted turnout operation will be used to help their elections. It is possible Obama’s campaign apparatus will try to help, but it is unclear how successful that operation is when Obama’s not on the ballot. After Bush’s reelection in 2004, the GOP was the clear leader in its turnout operation. That didn’t prevent the Republicans from being swept from power two years later, as voter anger over the Iraq war hit its climax.
It is outside factors, though, that will provide the biggest threat to Democrat plans to take the House. Obama’s approval ratings have already come back from their post-election highs. The lower ratings for his recent State of the Union address suggests some Obama-fatigue may be setting in among voters. His aggressive push for gun control is deeply unpopular with a block of voters who could have significant impact in the lower-turnout midterms.
There are two bigger problems, however, for Democrats’ dreams. The economy shrank in the 4th Quarter in 2012, indicating a very weak economy. The economy could easily tip back into recession or, at best, limp along with anemic growth. After 6 years in office, Obama won’t be able to skirt responsibility for the weak economy. That could make the elections very difficult for his party.
Also, in 2014, most of the provisions of ObamaCare finally take effect. How that plays out may blow-up Democrat designs on a majority. It is of course possible that implementation goes smoothly and exactly as Democrats promised back in 2010. It is equally possible, however, that employers treat the dawn of ObamaCare with reduced hours, dropped coverage, and more part-time workers as opposed to full-time. It is also possible that the exchanges, where uninsured consumers are supposed to buy health insurance, will be a bureaucratic morass.
Where would you make your wager?
In just a year, we will finally “find out” what’s in ObamaCare. A GOP majority in 2014 is probably not what Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) had in mind.