Sorry Democrats, you’re likely to lose House seats in 2014

December 5, 2013

Our friends at the Monkey Cage are starting to forecast the 2014 House election and the conclusion, basically, is that there's not going to be a wave in 2014. There won't be one for Democrats, certainly. But there probably won't be one for Republicans, either. The baseline forecast right now is that Democrats lose five seats in the House.


No waves. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomber)

Yes, it's early to begin forecasting 2014. But that hasn't stopped commentators, so it shouldn't stop political scientists, either. Moreover, there's reasonably good evidence that smartly constructed models can prove predictive -- even this early in the game. Here's how the model works:

It is based on elections from 1952-2012.  It takes advantage of key indicators at the national level: the popularity of the president as of June of the election year, growth or decline in the economy (gross domestic product) in the first two quarters of the election year, and whether it is a presidential or midterm election year.  (Similar factors went into a presidential forecasting model that I helped develop for Wonkblog in 2012.)  The model also builds in key indicators at the district level: the partisanship of the district as measured by the presidential vote, and whether a Democratic, Republican incumbent, or no incumbent is running in the district.  Thus, the model provides a forecast not just of how many seats each party will have in the House as a whole, but of the outcome in each district.  We first deployed this model in 2012, and it proved quite accurate.

One key fact the model forces to the fore: One of the best predictors of how many seats a party might win is how many they already have. The more seats a party has, the harder it is for them to gain additional seats, as the likelier it is that those seats will be in districts that are friendly towards the other party.

Emory's Alan Abramowitz put this sharply in an e-mail to me last week. "There is a crucial difference between the political environment today and the situation in 2010," he said. "Back then, Democrats were defending over 250 seats in the House including many in Republican-leaning districts. Today, Democrats only hold 191 seats and very few of those are in Republican-leaning districts. Just based on this fact, it is highly unlikely that Democrats will lose a substantial number of House seats next year."

Still, the baseline result right now is that Democrats lose seats in the House and Republicans add to their already imposing margin. And the Senate is even more promising turf for Republicans, both because the map is better for them (Democrats are defending 21 seats to Republicans' 14) and because a reasonably small swing could give Republicans control of the entire chamber.

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Neil Irwin | December 5, 2013