A Democratic Majority in the House? Don’t Bet on It Yet

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Sean Trende has an excellent item over at RealClearPolitics arguing why the Democrats’ path to 218 in the House may be harder than it was in 2006. Trende notes that Republican exposure in this cycle, measured by party-held seats that the other party won at the presidential level in the most recent election, is modest compared to the landslide years of 1994 and 2010. And then he notes that President Donald Trump’s approval ratings aren’t nearly as disastrous as George W. Bush’s were in 2006. 

Add it up, and it predicts an unusually tough challenge for the Democrats.

I’ll suggest another way of looking at it. House elections can be swayed by some combination of indirect and direct effects on voters. Indirect effects are all the ways that voters are given lopsided choices; the most extreme version of this happens when one party doesn’t have any candidate file at all in a district. And the stronger the candidate, and the more resources available to the candidate, the better chance that they will win voters regardless of what mood voters are in or which party they want to reward. For the most part, all of that is locked in early: retirements, quality challengers choosing to run or wait for a better year, even the decisions by donors and activists to participate and at which levels. 

Then there are the things that affect voters directly: how they feel about the president, whether the economy is booming or slumping, and perhaps some campaign tactics. Those are all things that happen late — maybe very late — in the campaign cycle. Voters have notoriously short attention spans, and at any rate, most of them don’t pay any attention to elections, especially down-ballot races, until close to Election Day. 

Democrats have had an unusually strong advantage in indirect effects during this cycle: Republican House retirements were high. Democratic recruitment went extremely well. By all accounts, Democratic Party energy has been off the charts since immediately after the 2016 election, while there’s little sign of strong Republican Party energy. It mattered that Trump was the least popular newly elected president during the polling era, with especially intense opposition. 

But the short-term direct effects may only point to modest Democratic gains. Trump’s approval rating last year was sometimes 10 percentage points worse than all other newly elected presidents; this year, he’s still usually at the bottom of the list for first-term presidents at this point, but by much more modest margins. He’s also, as Trende points out, not doing nearly as badly as George W. Bush was near Election Day in 2006. 

I’m not a numbers-cruncher, but even if I were, we simply can’t know how such an unusual start to the cycle will play out. And despite Trump’s fairly stable approval numbers, there’s no way to know whether he’ll pick up a bit more or drop back down to his low points — or perhaps wind up somewhere entirely new. We can see a few potential sources of volatility in the North Korea talks, Trump’s slowly evolving trade war, and the Robert Mueller investigation, but we can’t predict their outcomes, let alone their effects on public opinion. 

I have no argument with calling the House majority a toss-up at this point. I’d be more surprised if Republicans lost fewer than a dozen seats than I would be if they lost more than 40; there’s a lot more downside risk for the incumbent party than for the Democrats, and that’s all about the advantages Democrats have locked in right now. Sometimes we analysts just have to wait and see; for those who choose to get involved, there’s still plenty of opportunity to make a difference. 

1. Speaking of Democrats’ energy: Jenna Arnold, Kanisha Bond, Erica Chenoweth and Jeremy Pressman have their monthly report on protests over at the Monkey Cage. 

2. Jonathan Chait is correct that Trump was obstructing justice each time he pressured Jeff Sessions to step back into the Russia investigation and abusing his power when he pushed Sessions to prosecute Democrats for revenge. 

3. Amy Walter on California, reformers and party strength. While I agree with the general skepticism about nominations and campaign-finance reforms, this understates how well parties have adapted to reforms. We’ll see what happens on Tuesday in California, which has adopted an unusually anti-party system, but for what it’s worth, the Democrats seem to be doing just fine at influencing candidate selection elsewhere this cycle. 

4. Harry Enten looks at how the public reacted to Hurricane Maria

5. Matt Yglesias on what Republicans are up to on financial regulation

6. And Lily Herman profiles some young candidates for office. I love this: I’m not against older elected officials, but we have more than enough of them, and not enough young ones. 

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