Revisited: Are midterm losses inevitable for Democrats?
An old journalism saying goes, “If your mom says she loves you, check it out.” Same goes for political “common wisdom.” This doesn’t mean you automatically reject all common wisdom and become reflexively contrarian, but you do just as the adage says: “check it out.”
So last March, I dove deep into the common wisdom that said Republicans are nearly guaranteed winning back midterm control of the U.S. House of Representatives. This is largely based on a well-known historical tendency for the party in the White House to loses House seats at the midterm. Going back 150 years to the Grant Administration, this has happened 89% of the time, or 34 of the last 38 midterms.
But in my article “Are midterm losses inevitable for Democrats? Maybe not,” I shared findings from my deeper analysis that indicated fascinating countervailing trends. These suggested the midterms were far from a “dead man walking” situation for Democrats. Then in a related May article, I defied another piece of “common wisdom” about House redistricting titled “Despite Census news, GOP House gains not guaranteed.”
So as we enter 2022, how well are my lonely positions doing? Quite well so far. This week, Cook Political Report redistricting guru Dave Wasserman reversed his own predictions of significant GOP gains from redistricting. These included an early prediction for a double-digit seat-gain from redistricting. Later he adjusted this down to 6-8 seats. But with slightly more than two-thirds of state redistricting now done, his new position is “redistricting looks like a wash.”
He wrote, “The surprising good news for Democrats: on the current trajectory, there will be a few more Biden-won districts after redistricting than there are now — producing a congressional map slightly less biased in the GOP’s favor than the last decade’s.”
Obviously, this possibility did not surprise me. But despite the crumbling of one of the key pillars in the “GOP House destiny” view, Wasserman and many other political experts still believe the GOP will win back House control. Differences of opinion are quite fair, but some poker players would call this “doubling down on a bad bet.” And the poker reference is a good one because your view of the midterms ultimately comes down to whose hand would you prefer to play: House Democrats or House Republicans?
So now is a good time to review and update my past midterm analysis:
REDISTRICTING FLOPS FOR GOP
So what did I see on redistricting that extremely astute, fully engaged redistricting pros like Wasserman did not. First, I may have brought a more open mind to pressure-test Beltway “common wisdom.” When you are an insider, it can be hard to break stride from conventional thinking. Second, I recognized that given the past extreme gerrymandering in Republican-controlled states like Texas and Florida, it would be hard for those states’ GOPs to squeeze out even more redistricting advantages while also adding House seats from reapportionment.
This is because while it’s statistically possible to gerrymander further GOP seat gains in those states, incumbents love running in safe districts with built-in double-digit advantages. Incumbents are also highly influential in most state parties. So while a state redistricting process controlled by Republicans might do well to shave a lot of those double-digit advantages down to only 5% and then shift the surplus Republican voters into the newly added House seats, this seldom overcomes the nervous demands of incumbents who want safer, less stressful re-elections.
Last, most observers just made plain bad assumptions about blue states like California, Illinois and New York that each lost a House seat. They automatically assumed most seats lost in reapportionment would come from the Democratic column. But this ignored far more subtle factors in each state that, as I discovered through my review, seemed would most likely benefit Democrats. (These you can review in my original article.)
MIDTERM LOSS RULE
There’s no denying that 89% tendency for the party in the White House to suffer midterm House losses is a strong one. But I have yet to see any other political observer point out how in 2020 the GOP bucked a different strong trend. This was how nearly 75% of the time the party that wins the White House also adds House seats that cycle. This has been the case in all but six of the 22 presidential election years going back 90 years, but it didn’t happen in 2020 for Biden. The GOP netted 11 House seats.
Why might this be important? Because it’s possible that – thanks to the surprising turnout effect by Trump in 2020 – the GOP may have already experienced its midyear bump two years early.
This may also partly explain why the GOP’s expected gerrymandering advantages didn’t materialize. Ten of 14 House seats they flipped in 2020 were won by margins of 3.5% or less, versus one of the mere three the Dems flipped. Thus to give these new GOP incumbents safe redistricted seats would mean even fewer GOP voters for shifting to help gerrymandering elsewhere.
TURNOUT & GOP DIVISION
Another element overlooked in a lot of midterm handicapping is what effect not having Trump on the ballot will have for GOP turnout. Republican voters have a reputation for coming out in midterm elections at higher rates than Democrats. However, many polling models did not account for how many new voters would turn out simply to vote for Trump in 2016 and 2020. But when he wasn’t on the ballot in 2018, relative GOP turnout flagged and contributed to the 2018 Blue Wave that netted the Democrats 40 seats.
So which party will have a relative turnout advantage in 2022? Plus will Democratic voters be as motivated in the midterms without Trump on the White House? These are open questions, but of greater concern for the GOP than Democrats.
Then there is the split in the GOP with Trump endorsing against many incumbent Republicans who he considers “RINOs” (Republican in name only). Could Republicans see a significant number of voters stay home in November if their preferred Trump-endorsed candidate lose in the primaries? If this happens, this could swing the outcome of some narrowly decided seats, just as it did in the 2021 Georgia Senate runoffs.
I admit this is the one area that I didn’t completely foresee. Retirements will be a factor; however, pundits who simply point to the raw figure of 25 retiring House Democrats are being accidentally misleading. That’s because when Democrats like Illinois’ Bobby Rush or Michigan’s Brenda Lawrence announce their retirement from safe Democratic seats, this does not change the midterm calculus. But when the retirements are swing-district incumbents like Reps. Stephanie Murphy (FL-07), Cheri Bustos (IL-17), G.K. Butterfield (NC-02) and Ron Kind (WI-03), that is more concerning as this does give away an inherent incumbent advantage.
Wasserman counted 11 of the 25 current Democratic retirements as being in “potentially vulnerable districts” and none of the GOP retirements qualifying. But even these 11 potentially flippable districts don’t automatically put any extra seats in the GOP’s column. It just means it will likely be a more competitive race that all comes down to the candidates, the campaigns and quality execution.
But no soft peddling here. Even if the Democrats win more than half of these races and go 6 to 5, say, this theoretically can be enough to swing House control, provided Republicans hold serve everywhere else (which is a big “if”).
BIDEN APPROVAL RATINGS
This is a strange but interesting variable often cited to prove House Democrats have an extreme uphill climb ahead. Those who use it say most midterms are referendums on the incumbent President, and since Biden’s current approval ratings are in the low 40s, this is a crippling factor. However, in February and March last year when Biden’s approval ratings were in the 54%-57% range, many discounted this and said a GOP takeover of the House was inevitable. So take this particular proof point with big scoops of salt.
My sense of Biden’s approval rating right now is it is no better of a guide than those “generic opponent” polls. Poll Biden against an unspecific opponent, and his fortunes may seem low. But poll him and the Democrats against a clear Republican alternative, and you may see far more “undecideds” break blue.
GOP BRAND, LACK OF PLATFORM
Any honest assessment will grant the GOP brand today is in shambles. They have no official platform and are largely coalesced around conspiracy theories, being anti-vax, and being anti-Biden. Normally to nationalize a midterm election requires you to run on something specific or against specific major piece of legislation. See Newt Gingrich seizing the speakership in 1994 running on his 10-point Contract With America, or Republicans in 2014 running clearly against Obamacare, or Truman winning in 1948 (albeit a presidential election year) by running against a “do nothing Congress.”
The Republicans’ appeal to anti-Bidenism largely banks on their claims he failed to end the pandemic and not “ruling in bipartisan fashion.” But while no one is happy the pandemic continues, about 74% of eligible Americans have received at least one vaccine shot, and the vast majority of them recognize Biden cannot be blamed for all the unvaccinated Republicans who refuse to protect themselves, their families and their communities. The same goes for bipartisanship when the other party refuses to negotiate on much of anything.
This means the GOP message may only speak to already converted watchers of Fox News and other far-right channels. This could help with turnout, but it wouldn’t appear to be a good tactic for winning undecideds.
Without a proactive agenda to run on, they may be saddled with voters facing this choice: “Do you trust insurrection-supporting, science-denying, Trump-controlled Republicans to run Congress?” Senator Ted Cruz has already said if the Republicans get back control of the House, Biden will be instantly impeached for policies like his approach to the Mexican border. A policy difference as a “high crime”? Let’s see how many undecideds and independents want to vote for that kind of guaranteed partisan chaos and gridlock.
“NOTHING IS WRITTEN”
None of this means the Democrats will retain the House or that the Republicans take over. So much will come down to individual candidates and other dynamics. Take Democrat Terry McAuliffe who lost the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial race because he dumbly said in a debate: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Or what if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade entirely or mostly over the objections of at least 60% of Americans? How many do you think of those valued suburban female voters will the GOP lose?
So the question remains, if you were a poker player, which set of cards would you prefer to play? Me, I would take the Democrats’ cards, especially as redistricting was “a wash” for the GOP. But don’t take this as a prediction. You still have to play the cards, and there are far too many factors involved to be too confident of a deck stacked largely for one party or the other.
Think of it this way. In the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), after saving a man for seemingly certain death, Peter O’Toole as the title character proclaims “nothing is written.” The point by Lawrence/O’Toole was there is no ironclad historical destiny and everyone’s fate is yet to be determined.
“Nothing is written” is likewise an apt reminder to those wont to overweight political common wisdom.