Democrats Face Long Odds of Taking the House Back in 2018

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee D-Texas, left, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., right, and other members of Congress, hold small candles aloft in front of the Supreme Court during a news conference about President Donald Trump's recent …
Alex Brandon/AP

The establishment media and the leadership of the Democratic Party are building up expectations among the far left base that the Democrats have a strong chance of gaining the 24 seats they need to take back control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections.

But a look at the numbers suggests that dream may be a long shot.

Ed Kilgore succinctly articulated that dream in New York Magazine recently.

“A new poll shows the kind of numbers that if they become common could definitely portend not just a ‘wave’ but a veritable tsunami. Quinnipiac’s latest national poll mainly drew attention for showing some really terrible assessments of Donald Trump. But its congressional generic ballot was a shocker,” Kilgore wrote last week.

“By a 54 – 38 percent margin, American voters want the Democratic Party to win control of the U.S. House of Representatives. This is the widest margin ever measured for this question in a Quinnipiac University poll, exceeding a 5 percentage point margin for Republicans in 2013,” the pollsters wrote of their national poll conducted earlier this month.

Michael Barone, writing in a Washington Examiner article back in February, expressed the more objective view that the 24 seats the Democrats need to gain in the House to obtain a majority in 2018 is “not an impossible number.” He noted it is ” less than the net gains made by Democrats in 2006 and 2008 and by Republicans in 2010, but still a formidable number in an era that remains, though to a slightly lesser extent, a time of straight-ticket voting.”

Though a net gain of 24 seats by the Democrats is not impossible, the odds against it are significant. It is still a long 18 months until the November 2018 midterm elections, and the final outcome is likely to be determined by events that have yet to occur.

Democrats hope the 2018 midterm election will have some of the same “wave election” characteristics that swept Republicans into power in the House in 2010. The outcome of that Tea Party wave election was stunning. Republicans gained 63 seats and obtained a 242 to 193 majority in the House of Representatives, giving the Republicans control of the House after they lost it in 2006.

                                      Democrats Republicans  Vacant       Total
End of 111th Congress        255               179                  1  (Dem)     435
Start of 112th Congress     193               242                 0                   435

Differential                         +62                                     +1                  +63

Democrats note that 18 months ahead of the 2018 midterms they have virtually the same six percent generic Congressional ballot advantage the Republicans had in 2010 one month before the election.

The most recent Real Clear Politics average of polls on the generic Congressional ballot question, which does not include that Quinnipiac University poll, gives the Democrats a 6.1 percent advantage for April 2017, which is actually slightly less than the six percent advantage they held in a January 23-24, 2017 poll conducted by PPP.

In October 2010, one month before the 2010 midterm elections, the Real Clear Politics average of polls gave Republicans a 6.8 percent advantage in the generic Congressional ballot question.

But Democrats face a significant 2018 midterm Congressional election disadvantage that Republicans did not face in 2010.

Due to clever redistricting by Republican-controlled state legislatures after 2010, Democrats will need to win a greater percentage of  votes cast for Congressional candidates in 2018 than the Republicans needed in 2010 to obtain a majority.

The heavy concentration of Democratic votes in specific geographic areas (densely populated urban regions in the east and west coasts), combined with more modest but steady Republican margins in a broader swath of the country, is a phenomenon that most pundits missed in the 2016 Presidential elections. That is why Hillary Clinton’s twp percent popular vote advantage translated into a 306 to 232 electoral college vote loss to now-President Donald Trump.

That Republican advantage is even more significant in the 2018 House races.

“The way district lines are currently drawn benefits Republicans by distributing GOP voters more efficiently than Democratic voters. So, all else being equal, we would probably expect Republicans to win more seats than Trump’s approval rating alone indicates,” Harrey Enten notes at FiveThirtyEight.com .

Under the districts as drawn after the 2000 census for the 2002 to 2010 elections, Democrats simply needed to win the national popular vote in order to secure the 218 Congressional seats for a House majority.

But after the districts were redrawn based on the 2010 census for the 2012 to 2020 elections, Democrats will need more than a narrow popular vote victory to win a 218 Congressional seat majority. Though no specific district-by-district analysis has yet been done, comparing the 2006 and 2010 midterm results to the post-2010 census 2014 midterm results, Democrats could need as much as a five percent to nine percent  popular vote advantage to win the 218 Congressional seats they need for a House majority.

In 2006, in districts drawn based on the 2000 census, Democratic Congressional candidates received 42.3 million votes out of 80.9 million votes cast, or 52.3 percent. That was 7.9 percent better than the Republican Congressional candidates, who received 35.8 million votes, or 44.3 percent of the vote. This 7.9 percent popular vote margin translated into a 7.2 percent margin in the number of seats won — 233 to 202 (53.6 percent to 46.4 percent).

In 2010, also in districts drawn based on the 2000 census, the 435 Republican Congressional candidates received 44.6 million (51.4 percent) of the 86.8 million total votes cast in 2010. The 435 Democrat Congressional candidates received 38.8 million (44.7 percent) of the 86.8 million total votes cast. This 6.7 percent popular vote advantage translated into an 11 percent advantage in the number of representatives elected.

Due to the redistricting after the 2010 census, the same vote margin in the same precincts in 2018 might not be sufficient for the Democrats to obtain the desired 218 vote majority.

In 2016, in districts drawn based on the 2010 census, “Republican candidates received 49.13% of total votes cast . . . and won 55.4% of U.S. House seats. Comparatively, Democratic candidates received 48.03% of votes and won 44.6% of races. Third-party and write-in candidates received 2.56% of votes,” Ballotpedia reported.

Should that advantage reflect the final outcome in November 2018, however, the redistricting of Congressional districts engineered by largely Republican-controlled state legislatures after the 2010 census for the elections between 2012 and 2020, especially in those swing districts that matter, means that a six percent total Democrat advantage would not result in an 11 percent advantage in the number of seats won.

In 2016, for instance, after the redistricting, the 435 Republican Congressional candidates received 63.1 million votes (49.1 percent) out of the total of 128.5 million cast. The 435 Democrat Congressional candidates received 61.7 million votes (48 percent) out of the 128.5 million cast.

That 1.1 percent raw vote margin for Republicans translated into virtually the same 11 percent margin in the number of seats won in the House that year by the Republicans (241 to 194, as opposed to the 242 to 193 margin in 2010.)

The enthusiastic “resistance” of rank and file true believers who have been shouting down GOP representatives at town halls across the country, the non-stop mainstream media attacks on President Trump, and the recent appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special prosecutor to investigate allegations of Russian influence on the 2016 election outcome, combined with these current polling results, give Democrats hope that the 2018 midterms will be a “wave” election that will sweep them into control of the House.

The idea that voters across the country are pining for a then-78-year-old Nancy Pelosi to once again take the Speaker’s gavel when the 117th session of Congress convenes in January 2019 may play well among hard core Democratic and progressive activists and in the elite coastal counties where Democratic representatives are routinely re-elected with virtually no serious GOP opposition.

But the reality of the electoral math in the country’s 435 Congressional districts means that enthusiasm by itself is unlikely to overcome systemic disadvantages the Democrats face in this quest.

In Congressional elections held during the last decade, about ten percent of those 435 Congressional seats are actually in play and could see a change in the party of the member representing the district.

In 2016, for instance,  “380 of the 393 House incumbents seeking re-election won, resulting in an incumbency rate of 96.7%. The average margin of victory in U.S. House races was 37.1 percent,”  Ballotpedia reported. In 2014, the last midterm election, “[t]he average margin of victory was 35.8 percent in 2014, slightly higher than the average margin in 2012 of 31.8 percent,” Ballotpedia reported.

In 2014, only 49 out of 435 races were decided by margins of ten percent or less. Sixty-eight were decided by margins between 10 percent and 20 percent, and a whopping 318 were decided by margins greater than 20 percent.

“Of the 435 House districts, only 35 voted for the nominee of one party for president and a House member of the other party in 2016. That’s higher than the 26 that did so in 2012, the lowest number since 1920, but not much higher,” Michael Barone wrote in a Washington Examiner February article.

In 2016, 400 of the 435 members of Congress elected were in districts where the presidential candidate of the same party won; 218 Republicans won in districts where Donald Trump won the presidential vote, and 182 Democrats won in districts where Hillary Clinton won the presidential vote.

Of the 35 districts with split voting, 23 Republicans won in districts where Hillary Clinton won the presidential vote, and 12 Democrats won in districts where Donald Trump won the presidential vote, as the left wing web site Daily Kos reported.

The 23 districts where Republicans were elected to the House of Representatives and Hillary Clinton took the Presidential vote are:

 FL-27 Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
FL-26 Carlos Curbelo
CA-21 David Valadao
VA-10 Barbara Comstock
MN-3 Erik Paulsen
CO-6 Mike Coffman
CA-39 Ed Royce
CA-49 Darrell Issa
IL-6 Peter Roskam
CA-25 Steve Knight
CA-45 Mimi Walters
AZ-2 Martha McSally
NY-24 John Katko
TX-23 Will Hurd
WA-8 Dave Reichert
CA-10 Jeff Denham
PA-7 Pat Meehan
TX-32 Pete Sessions
CA-48 Dana Rohrabacher
TX-7 John Kulberson
KS-3 Kevin Yoder
NJ-7 Leonard Lance
PA-6 Ryan Costello

The 12 districts where Democrats were elected to the House of Representatives and Donald Trump took the Presidential vote are:

MN-7 Collin Peterson
MN-8 Rick Nolan
MN-1 Tim Walz
PA-17 Matt Cartwright
WI-3 Ron Kind
IA-2 Dave Loebsack
NY-18 Sean Patrick Maloney
NH-1 Carol Shea-Porter
NJ-5 Josh Gottheimer
Arizona’s 1st – Tom O’Halleran
Nevada’s 3rd – Jacky Rosen
IL- 17 – Cheri Bustos

To win the majority back, Democrats would have to win all 23 Congressional districts currently represented by Republicans where Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, hold on to all 12 districts currently represented by Democrats where President Trump won the popular vote, and pick up at least one Republican seat elsewhere.

The Democrats will also need money to win these key swing districts, and in that regard, they may be falling short.

“The Republican National Committee raised $9.6 million and had $41.4 million on hand in April, according to newly filed FEC reports, while the Democratic National Committee raised $4.7 million and had $8.8 million in the bank, while spending more than it raised,” Politico reported last week.

President Trump’s double digit disapproval ratings, however, gives Democrats hope that, despite the redistricting disadvantages they face, a Democratic House majority after the 2018 mid-term elections may be in the cards.

The Real Clear Politics average of polls shows the President’s job approval rating for the most recent two week period, May 11 to May 25, is only 39.9 percent, 14.3 percent below his disapproval rating of 54.2 percent.

This represents a significant decline in the four months since he was inaugurated, when his job approval and disapproval ratings were tied at 44 percent.

They also note that 18 months ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, President Trump has a much greater approval/disapproval differential (-14 percent)  than President Obama had one week before the 2010 midterms (-4 percent). On November 2, 2010, the day before the 2010 mid-term elections, President Obama had slipped to a 45 percent approval, 49 percent disapproval rating.

But the two presidents started out with starkly different approval/disapproval ratings during their first four months in office.

President Obama started out with a +43 approval/disapproval rating (63 percent approval, 20 percent disapproval) on January 27, 2009. Four months later, On May 25, 2009, the Real Clear Politics average of polls gave Obama  60-32 approval/disapproval rating, down to a +28 approval/disapproval rating, a number almost certainly  influenced by the launch of the Tea Party movement in February 2009, punctuated by the April 15, 2009 Tax Day Tea Party rallies that attracted more than one million participants in 900 cities around the country.

Over the next ten months, President Obama’s approval/disapproval rating steadily declined to a break even-point in March, 2010 47-47, and dipped an additional four points by November 2.

In contrast to the ten months it took President Obama to slide from a +43 approval/disapproval rating to break even, President Trump began at a break even 44-44 approval disapproval rating and has steadily dropped over the past four months to a -14 approval disapproval rating (39 percent approve, 53 percent disapprove).

In the 18 months between May 2009 and November 2010, President Obama’s approval/disapproval rating dropped by 32 points, from +28 to -4.

Claims that President Trump’s declining approval ratings are resonating with voters in Congressional elections have largely landed with a thud in the three special Congressional elections held so far in 2017. Republicans have won special Congressional elections  in Kansas, Nebraska, and now in Montana, where Republican Greg Gianforte won in spite of his election eve dustup with a reporter from The Guardian.

Pundits had previously pointed to Georgia’s 6th Congressional District special election as a potential bellwether for the 2018 midterms, but the intense national focus has turned that election more into a repeat of the 2016 general election than a true bellwether.

“Once thought to be a sleepy special election, it is now poised to be the most expensive U.S. House contest in the nation’s history,” the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported earlier this month of that election:

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis shows that about $15 million was spent by candidates and outside groups in the run-up to the April 18 vote, which winnowed an 18-candidate field to a pair of finalists: Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel.

Since then, the flood of money has only intensified. An additional $4 million has surged into the race in the past three weeks. And records show about $11 million in ad buys have already been booked through the June 20 runoff. That’s not counting expected big expenditures from Handel’s campaign or other groups that could kick up their spending.

The $30 million sum is an unprecedented expenditure. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a transparency advocacy group, the most expensive House race was a 2012 Florida contest between Republican U.S. Rep. Allen West and Democrat Patrick Murphy that cost nearly $29.6 million.

The most recent poll gives Democrat Ossoff a seven point lead over Republican Handel (51-44) in the special election that will be held on June 20, but the huge amount of money poured into the district makes the outcome unique rather than the bellwether Democrats have hoped for.

Should Ossoff win, the Democratic Party will still be faced with the enormous task of funding about 35 swing district Congressional races at record-setting levels in 2018, while also getting events to break their way over the next 18 months, to win back a majority in the House of Representatives.

“Not an impossible” task, as Michael Barone wrote back in February.

But if you are a betting person, it would not be a wise move in May 2017 to bet the ranch that the Democrats will take back the House in November 2018.

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