Sunday, May 7, 2017

Will Control of the House Flip in 2018?

I've heard a lot of talk recently — mostly from hopeful Democrats — that control of the House of Representatives will flip next year after eight years of Republican rule.

Given the current party division in the House, that would require the Democrats to make a net gain of two dozen seats.

Can it happen? Historically speaking, yes, of course. It has happened before. It is mathematically possible that it could happen again.

But will it happen again? Ah, that is a different question. To answer that question in May 2017 when the election won't be held for another 18 months requires a crystal ball — after all, who, at this point in the last election cycle (i.e., May 2015), predicted that Donald Trump would be the next president of the United States?

No one knows in which kind of world voters will be living when they go to the polls 18 months from now, and that will play an important role in the elections.

Now, it is true that, historically, a president's party loses ground in Congress in a president's first midterm elections, but all midterms are not created equal. Sometimes a president's party loses ground in one chamber but not both — Richard Nixon, as disliked as he was even by many who voted for him, lost ground in the House but not in the Senate in the midterm elections of 1970. In fact, Nixon's Republicans actually gained a couple of Senate seats but remained in the minority.

Four years later voter backlash over Watergate led to a loss of 48 House seats for the Republicans.

And, while sometimes presidents lose House seats in bunches, as Obama did in 2010, other times presidents lose only a handful of seats. In 1990 George H.W. Bush's Republicans lost only eight House seats. Four years earlier Ronald Reagan's Republicans lost only five House seats.

One–term presidents — Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush are recent examples — only have one midterm election. For presidents who have been elected to two terms, second midterm election results have been decidedly mixed. Barack Obama's party lost control of the Senate in his second midterm after losing control of the House in his first. George W. Bush's Republicans lost control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in more than a decade in his second midterm. But Bill Clinton's Democrats picked up seats in the House and saw no change in the Senate in the midterms of 1998.

Clinton's experience was rare for presidents and seems to have been fueled by voter backlash over the impeachment proceedings against Clinton. That is what seems to be necessary for a president's party to gain ground in the midterm elections — extraordinary circumstances that offset the natural enthusiasm that comes from being the party that is outside the White House looking in.

Prior to the Clinton years double–digit losses in the House — at least at the level that Democrats need next year — were uncommon in American politics. They did happen from time to time but not as regularly as they have since Clinton came to power.

Reagan's party lost 26 House seats in the midterms of 1982, but the party of his predecessor lost only 15 seats four years earlier. In between Reagan defeated Carter by 10 percentage points.

American democracy is a dynamic thing, always shifting in response to economic, social and political conditions — and the elected officials' responses to those conditions.

Such conditions are always changing. That is why it is a disaster waiting to happen if a candidate campaigns on the assumption that simply because a party has been winning for years in a state or district it will continue to do so. History is a pretty good indicator, but it is not foolproof, as Hillary Clinton should have learned on election night.

No modern president has faced an economy as horrendous as the one Franklin D. Roosevelt inherited in 1933, but the conviction that he was trying to right the ship enabled his party to make gains in both chambers in the midterms of 1934.

It runs deep in the American DNA to reject the notion of single–party rule in which one party controls all the levers of the federal government. Such a situation existed in the first two years of Obama's presidency — Democrats even held a seldom–seen veto–proof (and also filibuster–proof) majority in the Senate.

But the passage of Obamacare led to the voter backlash that resulted in Republicans seizing the majority in the House.

As much as Americans tend to reject the concept of single–party rule, though, it is important to remember that House races usually favor the incumbent. Congressional districts are concentrated, as small constituencies are wont to be, and tend to be the perfect examples of Tip O'Neill's pearl of wisdom that "all politics is local." Most House incumbents, regardless of party, keep their fingers on the pulses of their districts — if they don't they are almost sure to lose in the next election.

A few states have populations that are small enough that they are entitled to only one member of the House; in those instances, the House members are, essentially, statewide representatives like the state's two U.S. senators. But most states have more than one House member, thus concentrating the constituents' interests. A largely rural district can co–exist next to a largely metropolitan one — and, thus, different issues will matter to the constituents in each.

Even within districts, there can be pockets where the prevailing interests are different than in the rest of the district.

Currently Charlie Cook, perhaps the foremost observer of House politics, says Republicans hold 197 solid seats. That leaves 44 Republican–held seats, of which Democrats need to win 24 to seize a slim majority, that represent far more plausible takeover opportunities.

Of those 44 seats, though, Cook says 19 are likely to remain in Republican hands, which trims the Democrats' margin for error considerably.

Based on that, if the elections were being held today, Republicans most likely would hold on to a majority in the House.

But the elections are not being held today.

Stay tuned.

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