Hillary Clinton clinched the Democrat nomination last week and experienced a predictable jump in her poll numbers. Her gain was similar to the bump Donald Trump experienced in May, after he effectively won the Republican nomination.
For the GOP fainting class, though, who always see Democrat victories around every corner, the rise in Clinton’s poll numbers doomed not only Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign but, even, the Republican’s hold on Congress. Pundit Ramesh Ponnuru breathlessly warns that “Republicans Should Worry About Losing the House.”
Partly, the article is a reflection of pundits’ need to file copy and generate columns. It is also part of the long-standing tradition of predicting all manner of doom when a candidate one opposes wins a nomination. The National Review, where Ponnuru serves as a senior editor, devoted an entire issue and countless column inches opposing Trump’s nomination.
That kind of organized opposition to a nominee is one of the better features of primary campaigns. It is exactly what ought to happen during the primaries and caucuses. It ought also to caution us, though, when a pundit on the losing side of that effort, predicts widespread doom as a result.
The piece itself is worth reading, if only to give testament to the state of punditry today. Let’s cut to the quick, though, before unpacking Ponnuru’s argument; Republicans aren’t at serious risk of losing the House. The outcome in Senate is certainly tied closely to Presidential elections, for reasons so obvious even a pundit wouldn’t bother to point them out. House elections, though, are fundamentally very different contests.
Rarely, in modern times, has the House experienced big turnover in Presidential years. We are all very aware that midterm elections can generate big swings in House elections that can change control of the Chamber. It has happened three times in the last 22 years. These swings, though, simply do not happen in Presidential years.
The biggest Presidential landslide in the last 50 years was Ronald Reagan’s crushing 18-point victory over Walter Mondale in 1984. Republicans in the House that year picked up just 16 seats. Four years later, Reagan’s Vice-President Bush won a nearly 10 point landslide against Democrat Mike Dukakis. Democrats in the House picked up two seats, though.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the change in party composition of the House in Presidential elections was in the single digits. Regardless of which party captured the White House or held the House, the net-change in seats was small. The only exception was 2008, when House Democrats added 21 seats to the majority they had won two years earlier.
To capture the House in November, Democrats need to pick up at least 30 seats. Even assuming a repeat of the 2008 wave election, which is highly unlikely, this is a very tall order.
When the Republicans swept the midterm elections in 2010, the party also captured more than a dozen state houses. As a result, the Republican party enjoyed an enormous advantage for the once-in-a-decade redrawing of Congressional districts. The first elections in the new districts were held in 2012 and will be in place through the 2020 election.
Even though Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney by almost 5 points nationally, the Republicans only lost 8 seats in the House. Mitt Romney, in fact, won more than 225 congressional districts in the election, 7 more than necessary to control the Chamber.
Consider, again, that advantage in congressional districts. Mitt Romney lost the national vote by almost 5 points, but won in enough districts to control the House.
In truth, Presidential election results are already largely “baked-in” to US House elections. District lines are drawn based on the partisan vote in recent Presidential elections. When a district is described at “R+3”, for example, it means, generally, that the Republican Presidential candidate’s share of the vote in that district was 3 points higher than their national vote percentage.
There are currently more than 240 House seats with at least an “R+1” ranking. Democrats would have to reach very deeply into Republican territory to pick up enough seats to take control of the House. In 2006 and 2008, Democrats recruited a lot of centrist and moderate Democrats, many of whom had military records, to capitalize on voter fatigue with Bush and the Iraq War.
A large number of the Republican gains in 2010, in fact, were Republican areas returning to their traditional voting habits after the Bush and Iraq residue had blown away. Those gains, though, were cemented by redistricting in 2011-2012. Aside from hopes and dreams, with a healthy dash of unicorns, there simply isn’t enough favorable territory for Democrats to realistically hope to capture the House.
The Cook report, which has a slight bias against Republican chances, currently rates 202 GOP seats as “safe.” Another 23, which would be enough to control the House, are listed as “likely” or “lean.” Republicans have 22 seats that are “toss-ups,” while Democrats hold 4 “toss-up” seats.
Democrats would have to pull an inside straight at the same time they bought a winning lottery ticket. That is possible, of course.
For members of the GOP fainting class, though, these hard political numbers are beside the point. Trump will not only the lose the election, they aver, but lose in such a spectacular way that Republicans everywhere will be doomed. Rather than look at any actual election data, pundits like Ponnuru simply string together a few quotes from other pundits to confirm their arguments.
Trump may in fact lose the election. He is running against Hillary Clinton, though. Even if Trump loses, it is unlikely Clinton can harness a wave bigger than even Obama was able to accomplish.
The fainting class is quick to point out that Trump has the highest unfavorable numbers of any candidate in recent memory. The candidate with the second highest unfavorables, though, is Hillary Clinton. Trump is unpopular with a large segment of the public, but Clinton is as well.
In the most recent CBS poll, 58 percent of voters had an unfavorable view of Trump, but 52 percent also had a negative view of Clinton. Among independents, Clinton was more unpopular than Trump.
Clinton, it should be remembered, had a much harder time clinching her nomination than Trump did, despite virtually the entire Democrat party apparatus supporting her candidacy. Even against a septagenarian socialist from Vermont, Clinton was only able to secure the Democrat nomination through the intervention of the party’s 700+ superdelegates.
Voting turnout in this year’s Democrat primary was down 20-30% from the party’s last competitive primary in 2008. Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012 by expanding the electorate and drawing in large numbers of voters only marginally attached to the political process.
Within the DC pundit class, it is underappreciated how much Obama was able to graft his personal narrative onto a political infrastructure that generated record-breaking turnout within key demographics. There was no sign of any close to that happening during the Democrat primary this year. It is unlikely to happen in the general.
Hillary Clinton may capture the White House, but she is simply too unpopular to usher in the kind of wave necessary to deliver the House to Democrats. It is also certainly plausible that a great many voters who reluctantly support Clinton will split their ticket for Congress, to ensure divided rule in Washington.
That, however, is simply conjecture. It is also conjecture, though, at this point in the election, to assume that Clinton has a lock on the White House. At this point, both Clinton and Trump are too unpopular to win in November. That will change before the election, likely in ways no pundit can predict.
If we have learned anything this election, it is how often and spectacularly pundits and insiders get it wrong. Politico’s ongoing series of asking “Insiders” to predict impending political outcomes has become a running gag, identifying, inadvertantly, what won’t happen. The problem isn’t really that Politico is talking to “insiders,” but that insiders, in both parties, only talk to each other.
Both primaries this year have exposed political party establishments that frankly have no idea what voters are thinking or feeling. In many ways, they are still trying to act as if the last 5 months never happened. If pundits want to understand would could happen over the next 5 months, they should spend less time spilling their thoughts in columns and more time outside of DC, talking to voters.