Last week, in a closed-door meeting with donors, House Speaker Paul Ryan urged them to focus their efforts on maintaining control of the House of Representatives. With many donors sitting out the Presidential race (they don’t like Trump) and focusing most of their efforts on the Senate and few Governorships (Montana, West Virginia, Indiana), it is understandable Ryan would be reminding them to support the GOP majority in the House.
However, even if Clinton wins the race in a landslide (by today’s terms that is more than 5 points), Democrats will be hard-pressed to dislodge the GOP majority in the House. Ryan is doing his duty as Speaker by urging donors to support his more vulnerable members. But, in truth, there are just not that many of them.
The obviously vulnerable seats sit in Nevada (2), Iowa (2), Pennsylvania (3), New York (3), Florida (2), Arizona (1), Colorado (1), Illinois (1), Minnesota and Wisconsin (2) and a smattering of other places across the country. The GOP is assured of losing a redrawn district in Virginia and Florida as well. But even those numbers add up only to 19.
So why won’t Democrats take the House in the event of a Clinton landslide? It’s a combination of redistricting, geography, recruiting, voter preference and clustering. For starters, the GOP has done a masterful job redistricting the country to their advantage. For example, they are assured of holding every marginal district in Ohio and Indiana because of it.
Geographically, while the big focus has been on the shift in demographics favoring Democrats, the opposite has occurred in the House. Due to the South’s geographic shift to the right, the GOP has a massive buffer to pad its numbers in the House. Democrats have the same advantage due to California, but whereas the GOP has over 80 seats based in Southern seats Democrats only have 39 in California.
Ideology and the political environment play a big part in elections, but so does recruiting. This cycle, Democrats fell short in a big way. In two key suburban Philly districts Democrats are stuck with sub par nominees in arguably winnable races. In Ohio and Illinois, Democrats failed to recruit strong candidates in a few more key races. Expanding the playing field at the start would make the Democratic advantage even larger this election, but the party failed and now has to almost run a clean sweep of every toss-up and leaning GOP district (according to Roll Call rankings) to take the majority.
Republicans, with far fewer opportunities have actually done a fairly decent job recruiting strong candidates to hold marginal and open districts. For example, in NV 3, vacated by Congressman Joe Heck (running for Senate), the party chose Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson. In New York, Nebraska and the Philly suburbs the party rallied around strong nominees. Sure, there are a few lost opportunities (Minnesota), but that is part and parcel of the primary process.
Two other factors matter as well; voter preference and clustering. As much as voters gripe about gridlock and dysfunction in Congress they seem to dislike unified control of government even more. For the last 6 years’ government has been divided and voters may want to keep it that way. Admittedly, this tends to depend on partisan preference, but in recent polls Independents are the ones fueling GOP hopes of keeping the Senate.
Lastly, Democrats have suffered from a phenomenon known as clustering. The majority of their voters sit in heavily urban, liberal districts. This swings statewide races but has minimal impacts on Congressional members. For example, Congressional Democratic candidates won more votes in North Carolina than their GOP counterparts did in 2012. Yet, they won only 3 of 11 of the state’s districts. Well, if you win all 3 of your districts with over 75 percent and the GOP won their districts by an average of 5 percent the blame falls nowhere but on where your voters prefer to live.
It’s possible my logic could be turned on its head in time. Maybe Trump will be so damaging voters adopt a throw the bums out attitude and Democrats, ensconced in safe districts, survive the wave and benefit as the out-party in Congress. I just don’t expect it.