Let me start off by saying that I have no idea who will win the House of Representatives in 2020. Phew…it feels good to get that out of the way.
Now, if you’re still here1Hi mom., let’s take a look at what happened in 2018 and the current makeup of the House. Then we’ll turn to 2020. Keep in mind that the House, Senate and Presidency are different centers of power with different constituencies and voting trends. Be wary of translating any lesson or theory from one chamber or branch of government to another.
2018 was a great year for House Democrats. Approach conservative commentators making dubious claims about why it wasn’t with a healthy dose of skepticism. Democrats picked up at least 40 seats2We’re still waiting for NC-09 and won the House Popular Vote — the total votes Democratic and Republican House candidates received nationwide — by 8.6%, the largest margin since the 1974 post-Watergate, mid-energy & inflation struggles.
Republicans managed to flip only three districts (if we’re being generous3They only flipped PA-14 because of Pennsylvania’s court mandated redistricting.) out of 195 possible targets — a flippage success rate of 1.5%. Democrats flipped 46 out of 240 — a much more impressive flippage rate of 19%. Democrats were successful in nearly every type of district: Romney-Trump, Obama-Trump, Obama-Clinton, Romney-Clinton, suburban, and urban (see chart below). Conventional wisdom is that they struggled in rural districts, but even that is debatable as Democrats saw some of their largest gains percentage-wise in rural districts, even if these gains didn’t turn into outright wins. In fact, Democratic gains were largest in Republican strongholds that voted heavily for a Republican House candidate in 2016.
|CityLab Category||Obama-Clinton||Obama-Trump||Romney-Clinton||Romney-Trump||Total||Percentage of Democratic Gains|
|Percentage of Democratic Gains||25%||15%||30%||30%|
On to 2020.
Right now, Democrats hold 235 seats, Republicans hold 199 and NC-09 is still undecided. This means that Republicans need a net flip of at least 18 seats to win back the chamber. What are their chances?
The TLDR 5Too Long Didn’t Read (a summary). I’m throwing in some internet slang to help the older folks keep up to date. is this: history looks bad for Team Red’s chances to take back the house, but the only honest prediction out there is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Let’s rewind to 1972. This will be the starting point for analysis because it was the first election after a pair of Supreme Court cases, Wesberry v. Sanders and Baker v. Carr, which required all congressional districts to be roughly equal in population and redistricted after each decennial census.
Looking back, it’s clear that flipping the House in presidential years is very rare. So rare in fact that it has not happened in the post 1972 timeframe. The last presidential flip was way back in 1952, 66 years ago.
And in presidential re-election years (which 2020 will be with Trump6most likely at the top of the ticket), the president’s party averages a net of +2 seats. This number includes years where the presidents both won and lost re-election. Even in successful re-election years, the president’s party nets only +8 seats on average. Not enough for 2020 Republicans to take back the House.
The best year for any incumbent president’s party in this sample was 1984, Reagan’s re-election. Republicans picked up 16 seats — close to the 18 Team Red needs in 2020, but not quite.
The President’s party doesn’t usually win many House seats in re-election years:
|Year||Incumbent President||Incumbent President Win/Loss||Incumbent President Party’s House Net +/-|
Still, history is just history and politics has changed a lot since 1972. It would be foolish to think that this sample size of 5 elections could tell us everything we need to know about the upcoming election. In politics, past is not always prologue.
To get a better picture of what’s coming up in 21 months, we need to look at today’s political trends and individual House districts. I’m going to use Sabato’s Crystal Ball and The Cook Political Report — two of the most respected and historically accurate projection websites — to get a quick feeling of how things stand for 2020.
Both site’s rating scale include “Toss Up”8Cook Definition: “These are the most competitive races; either party has a good chance of winning.”, “Lean D” or “Lean R” 9“Cook Definition: “These are considered competitive races but one party has an advantage., “Likely D” or “Likely R”10Cook Definition: “These seats are not considered competitive at this point but have the potential to become engaged.” or “Solid D” or “Solid R”11Cook doesn’t define, but I hope you can extrapolate. districts. According to FiveThirtyEight, these districts have an average margin of victory of 0%, 7%, 12% and 34% respectively.
The biggest takeaway from their 2020 House ratings, (take a look at them here and here) is that they both give Democrats the upper hand to keep the House while also placing more Democratically held seats as Toss Ups or Leans, the two most vulnerable categories. Particularly worrisome for Democrats are the 16 (according to Cook) and 10 (according to Sabato) seats rated as “Toss Ups”. Sixteen is alarmingly close to the 18 seats that Team Red needs to flip control of the House. Many of these were extremely tight races in 2018 or voted heavily for Trump in 2016, and could easily flip back to Republicans.
Side note — Nearly 80% of districts are so heavily Team D or Team R that there is no question which party they will vote for! A divided nation indeed.
A future post will go deeper into details about these ratings, but this is getting long so it’s time to wrap up.
Election projections depend largely on the greater political climate — the “aggregate mood or opinions of a population about current political issues.” The big question for the 2020 House is what the political climate will look like and how it will affect the House elections.
But ‘political climate’ is so vague and unquantifiable as to border on useless. Some presumably important events, like the State of the Union, have no meaningful long-term impact on it, while other seemingly ridiculous correlations, like the Whole Foods vs. Cracker Barrel culture gap, have real lessons to teach us.
So, to help understand the broad but all-important concept of the political climate, ESY will start off with a series called Mercurial Nation. Each post in the series will look at one major element of the political climate and how it could affect the 2020 House Race.
Next Sunday123/3/2019: Presidential Coattails: What Are They?