April 5, 2013

Last Friday I looked at the 2014 Senate playing field. Today’s it’s the House’s turn. Bottom line: House Republicans will almost certainly retain their majority. But whether it gets larger or smaller matters, and it’s a bit too early to predict which is more likely.

The basics are pretty straightforward. The party holding the White House tends to lose seats in midterm elections — as Democrats did in 2010 — especially in the sixth year of a two-term presidency, as Republicans did in 2006. In fact, there’s only been one case of the party in the White House gaining at that point; Democrats gained a few seats during the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998.

And in fact, a seat-by-seat analysis of the 2014 cycle so far, although very early, point to how difficult it will be for the Democrats to gain 17 (net) seats; so does large-picture analysis.

However, gains for Democrats — which would defy history — are certainly possible. One of the reasons, after all, that the president’s party usually does badly in midterms is that they it typically does better than it “should” do when it wins the presidency. That’s what happened for Dems in 2008, but not really in 2012. Unlike during Obama’s first midterm, the number of tough seats for Democrats to defend is relatively small, and there are more targets for pickups than there were then.

So what should election-watchers look for? There are two ways to follow House elections. One is through the big picture: obviously, the more popular Democrats are and the more popular Barack Obama is the more likely it is that Democrats will gain seats. According to the model used by political scientist Alan Abramowitz, if the “generic” ballot question is even, with respondents split between favoring Democrats and Republicans, then the GOP would gain six seats in 2014. Currently, Democrats actually have about a five point lead, however, which would predict a small gain for them in House seats. So for the big picture, watch the generic ballot question, or just watch to see if Obama can become as popular as Bill Clinton was in 1998 and George W. Bush in 2002, when their parties gained in midterms.

The other way to look at it, however, is seat by seat. In particular, what matters here are retirements (thus robbing a party of the valuable incumbency advantage in those seats) and recruitment (because strong challengers who have been elected to some other office have a much, much better chance of winning House elections than unqualified beginners). For the most part, it’s too early yet to get much of a fix on what’s happening in that sense.

One other thing. Steve Singiser makes the reasonable point that seat by seat, at this point, overlooks the possibility of a “wave” — and would have, at this point, totally missed what was going to happen in three of the last four House cycles. A surge in favor of either party could easily produce large gains that appear implausible right now. However, on balance I’d say that weighs in favor of Republicans. In the fifth and sixth years of a presidency, it’s historically far more likely that a sudden change in popularity would be for the worse, not for the better. It’s not impossible that Obama could reach 70 percent approval, but it’s almost certainly more likely that he’ll crater down to 30 percent. My best guess, however, would be that he holds or even modestly improves on his 2012 gains, making 2014 more of a status quo election in the House.

Overall, then, the tilt of the playing field going into the cycle probably favors Republicans a little bit, but the continued unpopularity of the GOP, at least so far, probably makes up for that, and maybe even enough to allow Democrats to gain a handful of seats.

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Here’s your Happy Hour reading:

1. Matthew O’Brien: the clear lesson of the jobs report is to stop cutting the deficit.

2. In case you’ve lost track of the stampede, Jonathan Capehart details the Senators who flipped on marriage this week.

3. New this afternoon: the Sherrod Brown/David Vitter banking bill. Tim Ferholz has the scoop.

4. Jonathan Cohn seems some possibility that the president’s budget strategy might work.

5. But Paul Krugman leads the liberal charge against the Obama’s strategy.

6. Jason Linkins explains how Obama’s budget move could be received by the deficit nags.

7. And one thing that’s no surprise: John Boehner has already rejected Obama’s budget, despite not actually knowing what’s in it. Steve Benen reports.

8. If you ask the right question, maybe entitlements are the answer. Ezra Klein explains.

9. Harry Enten takes a closer look at polling that shows marijuana legalization is gaining ground.

10. Interesting idea by Zach Elkins: to solve the gun safety debate, pass a consensus Constitutional amendment.

11. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Raul Grijalva tells David Dayen that he hopes liberals will hold the line against Chained CPI, but he’s “seen this movie before” in the public option debate.

12. Garance Franke-Ruta tries to explain why Barack Obama’s remark to Kamala Harris was a botch.

13. And Barack Obama’s quite necessary and probably sufficient apology.