The Battle For The House Is Now A Toss-Up

As the dust from the California primary settles and the hot-takes from the results flow in (see mine here) the general consensus is that while things are looking up for Republicans the battle for the House remains an uphill slog.  I’m not so sure anymore.  If this was December of last year I would have unequivocally said the numbers and math were on the Democrats side.  Indeed, Democrats at one point seem poised to gain 40-50 seats in the House and negate the GOP’s advantage in the lower chamber of Congress.

So, over the past few months, what has changed?  Well, first, unless you have been living under a rock the economy has grown at a rate not seen since after the DotCom bubble.  This has helped fuel an increase in the number of Americans saying the country is on the right track.  How this translates to politics is the change in the generic ballot question.  This question is largely asked in two ways; either which major party’s candidate a voter will support in November or which party the voter prefers control Congress.

Historically, generic ballot questions have been either spot-on or off by a decent margin.  For example, in 2006 they clocked the Democratic margin at 11 percent almost perfectly but overstated the party’s advantage in 2008 by a half-dozen points.  Still, the question does serve as a decent barometer of the national political mood.

The final result obviously tells us in hindsight whether the polls were right but for an election yet to be held the movement before the election tells the tale.  After the 2016 elections Democrats gained and have maintained a lead on the generic ballot.  The lead ballooned to nine points over the summer of 2017, expanded to around 10 points in the fall and grew to double-digits by Christmas.  At that time the President’s approval was approaching 2nd term George Bush levels.

But, things have been much kinder to Republicans since January.  Building on their passing of major tax reform, Republicans standing in the polls has increased and the massive Democratic advantage decreased to as little as three points in early June before rebounding to around the current six to seven point average (depends on the pollster aggregate used).

Democrats have been rightly concerned about their shrinking lead for a couple reasons.  First, the party probably needs to win the popular vote by around five points to gain control of Congress.  Democrats blame this partly on gerrymandering (they are partly right) but it also has to do with the natural sorting of voters.  Republicans tend to be more evenly spread out in suburban and rural areas while Democrats are highly clustered in urban and dense, inner-suburban areas.  Think all the blue dots of cities in rural, red Virginia.

More importantly for Democrats is their showing in the polls at this point is not consistent with past wave elections.  Per Sean Trende from RCP, “In June 2006, for example, Democrats had a lead in the generic ballot of around 12 points, with the Associated Press placing their lead as high as 20 points. In 2008, the Democrats’ lead was a tick higher, at about 12.5 points. As bad as the environment feels for Republicans right now, the polling doesn’t look like it did in those years (yet).”  Republicans can breathe a sigh of relief on this front.  For now.

The enduring good news, as mentioned above, is the economy.  When parties in power have suffered significant midterm losses, think 1938, 1946, 1958, 1974, and 1982, the struggling economy has played a major role.  By contrast, in midterms where the economy is humming along, 1978, 1998 and 2002, the party in power has either mitigated its losses or actually gained seats (1998 and 2002).

Of course, economic growth is not the only factor playing into this year’s midterms.  The President and his approval rating play a major role.  For example, the midterms in 1994 and 2006 occurred in an environment of solid economic growth.  Those years, cultural issues such as abortion, gun control and the War in Iraq and scandals played a major role.

Unsurprisingly, President Trump’s declining approval ratings coincided with Democrats gaining ground in the generic ballot.  Many of the President’s policies and ideas failed to be realized starting with his repeal of the ACA to struggling to pass tax reform to the dismissal of Jame Comey but doing little to stall the investigation into possible ties to Russia.

But, as the President has started to rack up policy successes his approval has climbed to has high as 44 percent in early June.  In turn, Republican fortunes on the generic ballot have increased.  One can venture a guess why this has happened but policy successes such as passage of major tax reform, a diplomatic break through with North Korea, and the aforementioned economy have helped the party as a whole.

A President with a plus forty percent approval rating does not equal success for an incumbent party however.  Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both had plus forty approval ratings on the eve of their first midterms and their party lost 54 and 63 seats respectively.  This leads into the individual and highly variable nature of “vulnerable” seats.

Consider in 1994, Democrats held a whopping 91 seats that supported Bill Clinton by less than his national margin in 1992.  Due to the Democratic’s ancestral heritage in Southern seats that increasingly voted for the GOP nominee for President the party was dangerously overextended and these seats were the lions-share of the party’s losses.  In 2010, due to massive Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008, Democrats held 69 seats that leaned towards the GOP.  Again, this was partly due to remaining Democratic strength in the South and again these seats were a large share of the party’s 2010 losses.  Party losses in 2014 were more mixed and generally were in Democratic leaning seats offering up the majority of the GOP’s losses in 2016 and competitive seats this November.

Today, depending on how you look at it, Republicans hold just nine seats that lean Democratic relative to 2016.  So, unlike 1994 or even 2010, the GOP is much less extended than the Democratic Party when they suffered major losses.

On the other hand, the Daily Kos is much more optimistic for Democrats.  At least sixty Republicans sit in districts that have voted for the Democratic nominee for President once in the last three elections.  A lot of these seats only voted Democratic in 2008 but fully 12 of these 60 districts have voted Democratic for the last three cycles and another 16 favored the party’s Presidential nominee twice.  If you are a Democratic, you have to hope these districts revert to the norm and let their partisan Presidential tendencies bleed down-ballot.

Yet, there are a number of smaller, individual considerations playing into the contest for the House.  A number of Democratic candidates made it through their party primaries that are probably a tad too liberal for their districts like in Nebraska-2 and VA-5.  While these seats are not necessary must-wins for the party to regain Congress they would have padded the party’s margins in a closely divided battle.  Yet, Democrats lucked out in two New Jersey races that are looking like sure-fire pick-ups for the party and look likely to hold a third seat that voted for Trump and once looked vulnerable.

Better for Democrats is they avoided a lock-out in every single competitive contest in California where the state holds a quirky jungle primary and the top two vote-getters regardless of party advance to the general.  Democrats avoided a lock-out but the results were not indicative of a blue-wave.  Of the five seats Democrats are optimistic of taking in the fall, Republicans managed to win more votes than Democrats in four of the five (the exception being the 49th).  Primary results have been fairly indicative of the general election meaning the GOP might rob Democrats of some needed victories in the dark blue West Coast.

The counter-argument to the above is how well Democrats have fared in special elections.  Democrats have won a dark red Senate seat in Alabama, in Trump territory in PA-18 and run competitively in several other Congressional districts.  The party has also managed to flip over 40 GOP legislative seats, though these victories have often been in extremely low-turnout special affairs in red states like Missouri and Oklahoma where scandals and education funding have played major roles in these contests.

If one were to base the midterms solely on special elections Democrats would be a lock for the House.  But, because special elections are, well, special, they do not always foreshadow November results (sorry, Daily Kos).  While special elections foreshadowed Republican issues in 74 and 06, Democratic performances in 2004 and 2009/2010 and Republican results in 1998 were not predictive.

All of the above said, generic ballot numbers and polls do not always accurately capture enthusiasm.  Democrats point to the fact their base is fired up and the number of voters who strongly disapprove of the President double those that strongly approve.  But, trying to predict which way the polls will be wrong could be a fool’s errand.  For example, in 2010 and 2014 the polls boosted Democratic performance by around five points while in 2012 they boosted Romney by several points in several swing states.

It should also be mentioned the polls have been pretty spot on in special elections this year so there is not a lot of reason to doubt polls in individual races are significantly off.  For Democrats in red states and Bill Nelson in Florida this is not the best of news.

Of course, the elephant in the room is the time from now to Election Day.  A lot could change between now and November.  The economy could decline, the Mueller investigation could bring charges against Trump, or North Korea could burn the President and walk away from negotiations.

None of this is to say the GOP majority is saved.  But, compared to last year, the GOP’s majority is looking shaky but far from breached.

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