The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The challenges Democrats face in 2014 (in 2 graphs)

(Michael Hicks/via Flickr)

This is a guest post by Ben Highton, one of the political scientists behind our midterm forecasts.

The chances that the Republicans will maintain control of the House are a near certainty.  Republicans also have a fair chance of winning a Senate majority, too.  Part of the problem for Democrats is that it’s a midterm election year and the party that controls the White House typically loses seats.   On top of that, national conditions do not look very promising if Democrats are to buck the usual tide against the president’s party.  At this point, national conditions look, at best, average for a midterm election, and in the case of presidential approval, not very good at all.

Presidential approval is strongly correlated with midterm congressional election outcomes.  Gallup has polled Americans on presidential approval during every midterm election cycle since 1954.  Across the 16 midterm election cycles from 1954 through 2012 the average level of presidential approval during the first quarter (January to March) of the election year is about 58 percent.  Over the available Gallup presidential approval polls for the first quarter of this year, Obama’s approval is significantly below the average, about 42 percent, worse than every other year except 2006 and 1974.

Another national level factor is the state of the economy.  There are many possible indicators that could be used.  Our forecasting model relies on GDP.  Another common indicator is growth in personal income.  (Both indicators are adjusted for inflation.)  The most recent quarterly data on these two economic performance measures are from the fourth quarter of 2013.  We compute their rates of change by comparing the levels in the fourth quarter to the levels in the second quarter.  For GDP, the two quarter growth rate is 1.6 percent, placing the current election seventh out of the 16 midterm cycles during the same period.  For personal income, the two-quarter increase is 0.5 percent, for a ranking of 11th out of 16.  In neither case, do things look especially good for the Democrats.

While Democrats should lose seats under almost any set of plausible national conditions, the size of this loss will be influenced by how presidential approval and economic conditions evolve in the coming months.  Right now, national conditions, especially the low level of presidential approval, are looking good for Republicans and bad for Democrats.