Editor’s note: This is a two part series that will explore Republican prospects in the 2014 midterm elections. Part 1 is the House elections.
We’re just over a year away from the 2014 midterm elections, and liberal pundits are feeling giddy. They point to polls like a recent one from CNN where 75% of respondents “say most Republicans in Congress don’t deserve re-election” and believe the “unpopularity of the shutdown” will doom GOP chances of retaining their House majority or taking the Senate.
But chances are, this is nothing but more overhype from talking heads in the media, and the GOP will in all likelihood retain their House majority next year.
For starters, CNN uses the poll's most sensational finding as the headline to grab the attention of drive-by news readers. But if anyone bothers to check out the poll’s complete findings, they’ll find out there’s more to it than meets the headline eye. For instance, more than seven in 10 questioned in the survey said that most members of Congress don’t deserve to be re-elected, while less than four in 10 said their own representative doesn’t deserve to return to Washington next year – reinforcing the well-known belief that individual voters hold their own representative in a more positive light than Congress overall. A majority of respondents (54%) also said most Democrats don’t deserve to return to Congress either, highlighting the public's frustration with political brinkmanship from both parties. The poll also failed to ask if respondents who believed the GOP don’t deserve to return based their answer on Republicans' vote to end the shutdown rather than continue it.
Regardless, most of this is short term emotional opinion that will be ancient history come next year. On top of that, the math simply isn’t there for Democrats to retake the House, and here’s why: according to the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, during the last government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, 35% of House Republicans were in districts that had voted for Bill Clinton in the 1992 election. This time around, only 7% of House Republicans are in districts that voted for Obama in 2012.
In the 1996 election immediately after the last government shutdown, Republicans only lost three seats in the House and gained two seats in the Senate – and that was with 35% of House Republicans in Clinton districts.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Even statistics god Nate Silver of the infamous FiveThirtyEight blog agrees, writing, “Remember Syria? The fiscal cliff? Benghazi? The IRS scandal? The collapse of immigration reform? All of these were hyped as game-changing political moments by the news media, just as so many stories were during the election last year. In each case, the public’s interest quickly waned once the news cycle turned over to another story. Most political stories have a fairly short half-life and won’t turn out to be as consequential as they seem at the time.”
“The impact of the 1995-96 shutdowns is overrated in Washington’s mythology,” according to Silver.
Silver explains the main obstacle Democrats face in their electoral prospects to take the House back, “First, there are extremely few swing districts — only one-half to one-third as many as when the last government shutdown occurred in 1996. Some of this is because of partisan gerrymandering, but more of it is because of increasingly sharp ideological divides along geographic lines: between urban and rural areas, between the North and the South, and between the coasts and the interior of the United States.
“So even if Democrats make significant gains in the number of votes they receive for the House, they would flip relatively few seats because of the way those votes are distributed. Most of the additional votes would come in districts that Democrats were already assured of winning, or where they were too far behind to catch up.
“Consider that, between 2010 and 2012, Democrats went from losing the average congressional district by seven percentage points to winning it by one percentage point — an eight-point swing. And yet they added only eight seats in the House, out of 435 congressional districts.”
While partisan liberal pundits will be quick to sound the alarm on Republican gerrymandered districts, they should keep in mind that Democrats have done the same thing in states like Illinois, Maryland, and California as well (something the broadcast news stations also fail to report).
Silver goes on to conclude that, “In 2014, likewise, it will require not just a pretty good year for Democrats, but a wave election for them to regain the House. But wave elections in favor of the party that controls the White House are essentially unprecedented in midterm years. Instead, the president’s party has almost always lost seats in the House — or at best gained a handful.”
But this also highlights the obstacles Republicans have when it comes to upcoming Senate and presidential elections. As I’ve explained countless times since the 2012 election, Democrats have spent the last eight years combing through the blue districts of all the swing states and aggressively registering more voters in their books (then getting them to the polls as quickly and conveniently as possible starting on day one of early voting). This doesn’t help them in House elections where Democrat voters are numerically stacked up in the same districts that they’re already winning, but it does give them the popular vote advantage in each state.
Not only does that pose a big problem for the GOP's Senate prospects in blue and swing states, but it also hurts their chances of winning another presidential election which is essentially determined by 50 separate statewide elections. With the exceptions of Maine and Nebraska, the Electoral College votes of each state are a winner-take-all jackpot for whoever finishes first in each state’s popular vote. If every state would proportionately award the Electoral College votes based on the popular vote the way Maine and Nebraska do, Mitt Romney would’ve won the 2012 election by 11 Electoral College votes.
That’s why Republicans need to catch up with Democratic efforts in swing states by aggressively combing through all the red districts and getting out the vote. Until the GOP organizations in every state start playing the same games as Democrats, their statewide and nationwide electoral prospects won’t change anytime soon.
I should also mention that while history is on the GOP’s side to retain their largest House majority since 1947, that’s not something they can bank on anymore, either. Historically, whichever presidential candidate has won the most whites, independents, and middle class voters also wins the election. The 2012 election was the first to break that trend (most whites, independents, and middle class voters broke for Romney). I’ve concluded that is due in large part to the growing numbers of non-white voters. Whites broke for Romney 60% to 40%, the largest margin for a Republican candidate since 1988. If this were still the electorate of 20 years ago, where whites made up 87% of voters, Romney would’ve won 54% to 45%. But the non-white vote has more than doubled since then from 13% to 28% of the overall vote, and of that 28%, Romney got less than 5%.
But midterm election turnout has hovered around 40% for the last 40 years, far below the 60% average voter turnout of the last three presidential elections.
So unless that changes this time around, the House should stay within the control of the GOP through 2014.