Battle for the House: 100 Days Out, Democrats Are on the Brink

One hundred days from right now, the 2018 midterm elections will finally occur (or conclude, with early voting starting as many as six weeks out in some states). And while all sorts of congressional, state, and local contests will be on the ballot, the struggle for control of the U.S. House remains the marquee match. Democrats are now, by most accounts, a slight favorite to win the net 23 seats they need to regain the House. This has been the top betting line off and on since the beginning of the 2018 cycle, though last autumn Democrats looked almost certain to build an irresistible “wave” and this spring it appeared that Republicans might be recovering enough to survive with a reduced majority.

The current big-picture indicators show Democrats right on the brink of the numbers they would need to win back the House. All along, the conventional wisdom has been that Democrats need a lead of seven or eight points in the generic congressional ballot, an approximation of the House national popular vote, to feel reasonably confident of their chances. Their lead on the generic ballot is currently at 7.3 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling averages (it was as high as 13 percent last December and as low as 3 percent in the late spring), and 7.7 percent in the FiveThirtyEight averages (which weight polls according to their assessed quality and make adjustments for partisan bias). Typically the party that does not control the White House is likely to get a late breeze in its favor unless the president’s favorability markedly improves. At this point in 2014, Democrats led in most generic congressional polls, but then lost the national House popular vote by nearly 6 percent.

And while the president’s approval rating is in the low 40s as opposed to the high 30s where he was in autumn 2017, it appears to have stabilized, and there’s no reason to believe it will drift up toward 50 percent between now and November. Presidential approval below 50 percent is the single best red flashing arrow pointing to a bad midterm for his party, as Charlie Cook points out:

[I]n six of the seven midterm elections since 1966, when presidential approval ratings hovered below 50 percent, his party has lost two dozen or more seats in the House, giving the opposition party a majority the next year. The lone exception was 2014 in President Obama’s second term. Democrats lost only 13 seats, but they had been all but destroyed in the 2010 midterms and hardly gained seats in 2012, so they had few competitive districts to lose in 2014.

The most recent precedent is grim for Republicans: going into his first midterm elections, Barack Obama’s approval rating was a bit higher than Trump’s is now (45 percent in July of 2010, 44 percent on election day), and his party lost 63 House seats.

Nobody thinks a landslide that immense is going to occur, partly because Democrats were more exposed after big 2008 gains, and even more because Republicans did a great job entrenching an advantage in the last redistricting cycle. But Trump’s own ability to win in 2016 (in the electoral college, at least) despite mediocre approval numbers won’t likely be transferable to congressional Republicans.

Retirements, resignations, and a court-ordered re-redistricting in Pennsylvania have combined to produce 42 open or vacant Republican House seats — the highest number for either party since 1930. Exactly half of those seats are in districts where Trump either lost in 2016 or received less than 55 percent of the vote, and in nearly half, the Democratic candidate has been raising more money than the Republican in the most recent filings.

Speaking of fund-raising, Republicans have clearly lost a lot of the usual advantage the party in power enjoys on the money front, as David Wasserman reported last week:

[D]onors’ desperation to thwart the president helped Democratic candidates out-raise a jaw-dropping 55 GOP House incumbents in the last three months. And 18 Democrats in GOP-held seats raised more than $1 million (not including self-funders)….

In 37 GOP-held districts — including 16 held by Republican incumbents — a Democrat entered July with the most cash on hand (in 2010, only eight incumbent Democrats trailed a Republican at this point).

And on top of everything else, various indicators continue to show Democrats are more enthusiastic about voting than Republicans, which is an important trend given the GOP turnout advantages that played a big role in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. Indeed, the consistent overperformance of Democrats in 2017 and 2018 special elections suggests that the turnout advantage might be even larger than standard measurements (based on past voting behavior and expressed interest in voting) would predict.

But with Trump and congressional Republicans focused intensely on rousing their own base with attacks on the media, Robert Mueller, undocumented immigrants, and foreign governments (other than Russia), turnout will be hard to guess. And there are growing signs that while Democratic-trending groups like college-educated women (attracted in part by an impressive wave of Democratic women running for the House), interest in voting remains tepid among two traditionally Democratic groups: young voters and Latinos. This affects where Democrats have the best chance of picking up seats, and explains why, as Wasserman notes, “the “blue wave” is gathering more strength in professional, upscale suburban districts where women are mobilized against Trump than in young, diverse districts where Democratic base turnout is less reliable.”

And that leads to the question of identifying the specific House battlefields for November. One leading prognosticator, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, shows no fewer than 33 Republican-held seats in toss-up races, and another seven leaning Democratic to one degree or another. Six of these most vulnerable GOP districts are in California; five are in Pennsylvania; three are in Virginia; and two each are in Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Ohio and Texas. Sabato has another 16 Republican-held seats in the competitive Lean Republican category. By contrast, there are only three Democratic-held seats that are either toss-ups or Republican–tilting, and just three more than are Lean Democratic. So the battleground is almost entirely on GOP turf, and Republicans will have but sparse opportunities to make up for losses with countervailing gains.

The Cook Political Report shows 10 Republican seats already likely to flip and another 24 in toss-up races, and then 26 more in the competitive “lean Republican” category. Cook shows only 3 Democratic seats as being in much peril, with two more in competitive races. Again, Republicans are on the defensive nationwide, and one thing to watch for is how many GOP-held seats that are now “Likely Republican” (27 in the Cook accounting and 34 in the Sabato list) become competitive. If it’s more than a handful, the GOP is clearly in big trouble.

What can affect the races down the stretch? Well, there’s obviously a thousand local factors that could matter in very close races, from scandals to debates to sudden infusions of money. Perhaps the murkiest consideration is late spending by “independent” groups who will (allegedly without coordination) be following parallel paths to the most competitive races — traditionally an important source of hidden strength for Republicans, but not necessarily in a year like this.

As for external factors — well, there’s a large tendency to exaggerate the effects of twists and turns in the daily news cycle. One thing that Republicans will almost certainly tend to over-value is economic good news; this matters significantly more in presidential races, and to the extent it affects midterms it is mostly via its impact on presidential approval ratings. The economy was actually improving about as steadily in the last half of 2014 as it is today, and that didn’t make Obama’s second midterm a good one for Democrats. The increasing prevalence of early voting (and for that matter, voting at home) reduces the potential importance of “October surprises” from, say, Mueller.

So the suspense will be over soon — though possibly not as soon as we think. Thanks to California’s many competitive House districts and its voting rules allowing ballots mailed by election day but received later to be counted, we could be waiting for a number of days to find out which party controls the gavel.

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