Sabato's Crystal Ball

Can Republicans Take Back the House?

Alan I. Abramowitz, Senior Columnist June 17th, 2010

Editor’s Note: These days the best D.C. parlor game is guessing November’s House results. We’ve recently made our own contribution, with a district-by-district analysis that projects—as of early June—a Republican net gain of 32 seats. But the Crystal Ball has always done House projections in two ways. The second method requires advanced statistical modeling of the sort Professor Alan Abramowitz provides in this week’s Crystal Ball. Prof. Abramowitz’s record has been superb in election prognostication, and his analysis shows a GOP gain of 39 House seats—precisely the number needed to take control. There is not much difference between 32 and 39 in a June forecast. Both methods will be tweaked as we enter late summer and early fall. There are two reasonable conclusions to draw from these numbers. First, whether they gain 25 or 32 or 39 or 50 seats on November 2, Republicans are headed for a good midterm year, though it is very unlikely to match the over-the-top prognostications of some GOP leaders (who have gone as far as +70 to 100 or more seats). Second, Republican control of the House is on the bubble. Events over the next four months, reflected in President Obama’s approval rating in good part, will determine whether Republicans fall over or under the all-important number of 39.

- Larry J. Sabato

With less than five months left until Election Day, many political commentators are asking whether this year’s midterm elections could be a reprise of 1994 when Republicans picked up 8 seats in the Senate and 54 seats in the House of Representatives to take control of both chambers for the first time in 40 years. There is almost universal agreement that Republicans are poised to make major gains in both the House and the Senate. And while the GOP’s chances of gaining the 10 seats needed to take control of the upper chamber appear to be remote, the 39 seats required to take back the House of Representatives may be within reach.

There are some striking similarities between the mood of the American people today and the mood of the country 16 years ago. The most important similarity is that President Obama, like President Clinton in 1994, has seen his approval ratings fall below 50 percent which is generally considered the danger zone for an incumbent president and his party. The Democratic-controlled 111th Congress, like the Democratic-controlled 103rd Congress, is very unpopular with an approval rating of 21 percent in a May Gallup Poll. And only 24 percent of Americans according to the same poll are satisfied with the way things are going in the country. Given these results, it is not surprising that Republicans have been running either even with or ahead of Democrats when voters are asked which party they want to control the next Congress. That was true in the summer of 1994 as well.

While the mood of the public today appears similar to the mood in 1994, there are a couple of important differences between the political situation now and the political situation then. Democrats hold 256 House seats today just as they did in 1994. However, fewer of their seats today are in marginal or Republican-leaning districts while more are in strongly Democratic districts. In addition, Democrats are defending only 19 open seats this year compared with 31 open seats in1994. As a result, Democrats are in a stronger position to defend their majority this year than they were in 1994.

Table 1 compares the distribution of Democratic House seats in 1994 and 2010 in terms of party strength and incumbency status. Party strength here is measured by the vote in the most recent presidential election. Districts in which the Democratic share of the presidential vote was below the national average are classified as Republican leaning, districts in which the Democratic share of the vote was up to 5 percentage points above the national average are classified as marginally Democratic, and districts in which the Democratic share of the presidential vote was more than 5 percentage points above the national average are classified as strongly Democratic. Incumbency status is based on information available as of June 2. It is possible that a few more Democratic seats could become open in the next few weeks as a result of unexpected retirements, deaths, or primary defeats, but that number is likely to be very small.

Table 1. Democratic House Seats by Party Strength and Incumbency Status in 1994 and 2010



While the total number of Democratic House seats is the same today as in 1994, changes in the demographic composition and geographic distribution of the electorate over the past 16 years have resulted in an increase in the number of strongly Democratic House districts. In 1994, Democrats had to defend 87 seats in Republican leaning districts and 55 seats in marginally Democratic districts compared with 114 seats in strongly Democratic districts. This year, in contrast, Democrats must defend only 69 seats in Republican leaning districts and only 42 seats in marginally Democratic districts compared with 145 seats in strongly Democratic districts. Moreover, there are only 15 open seats in Republican leaning or marginally Democratic districts this year compared with 24 in 1994. As a result, even if the Republican tide this year is as strong as it was in 1994, Democrats would lose considerably fewer House seats.

Democrats lost a total of 56 of their previous seats in 1994 while picking up two Republican seats for a net loss of 54 seats. Almost all of the Democratic losses occurred in marginal or Republican leaning districts. Democrats lost 32 percent of their seats with running incumbents in Republican leaning districts and 19 percent of their seats with running incumbents in marginally Democratic districts but only one percent of their seats with running incumbents in strongly Democratic districts. Likewise, they lost 100 percent of their open seats in Republican leaning districts and 75 percent of their open seats in marginally Democratic districts but none of their open seats in strongly Democratic districts.

If we project the 1994 loss probabilities onto the 2010 distribution of Democratic seats in terms of party strength and incumbency status, we would expect Democrats to lose 42 of their current seats in November. Since Democrats are given a good chance of picking up at least three current Republican seats (one each in Hawaii and Louisiana and the at-large seat in Delaware), we would expect a net loss of 39 House seats, leaving Republicans with the narrowest possible majority: 218 seats to 217 for the Democrats.

Conclusion

Democrats are in a stronger position to defend their majority in the House of Representatives today than they were in 1994 because a larger proportion of their seats are in strongly Democratic districts and they have fewer open seats to defend. However, if the national GOP tide turns out to be as strong this year as it was in 1994, Republicans would have a reasonable chance of regaining control of the House with a very narrow majority.



Alan Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University. His latest book is The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Democracy in which he presents groundbreaking arguments about polarization, political engagement, and the role of the political center. He can be contacted via email at polsaa@emory.edu.