Is the House in Play in 2012?

Last week President Obama predicted that Nancy Pelosi will again be Speaker of the House in 2013; Pelosi today noted that due to excellent candidate recruitment and a large war chest that the Democrats have a shot at taking back the House.

The job is tough.   They need to flip 25 seats.   To be sure, the Republicans took over 60 from the Democrats in 2010, meaning that there are a lot of first term Republicans who could be vulnerable.    Moreover, the dynamics of a Presidential election are different than an off year election.   For one thing, the electorate is different.   Off year election demographics favor the Republicans and 2010 was no exception.

So on its face the bold prediction certainly is both plausible and possible.    Brent Budowsky writing for The Hill explains why Democrats are still in a very strong long term position, noting that in polls Hillary Clinton blows away the GOP opposition.   The people may have doubts about Obama, but it’s not because they’ve embraced the GOP.   There have also been recent signs that the economy may start to pick up steam and that Obama is rising from his approval lows.    At this point Obama is still a slight underdog, but given that he’ll fund raise as much as $1 billion and has the advantages of incumbency, no one should underestimate his capacity to win.

But the House?   The House changed parties in 1994 and then again in 2006.   The scope of the GOP win in 2010 was breathtaking, and the idea that the anti-Democratic wave would reverse itself seems unlikely.   On the other hand, the pundits in December 2008 were writing about the inevitability of a big Democratic victory in 2010, so as I noted a few days ago, the political pendulum may be about to swing again.

Going over to Larry Sabato’s website there are 53 Republican seats “in play,” and 46 held by the Democrats.   15 of those seats are ranked as pure tossups, meaning that if the Democrats won every toss up seat they’d still fall well short of the 25 listed without gaining elsewhere.   Sabato also has three seats leaning to switch from GOP to Democratic, but six from Democratic to Republican.  If it’s a stable year and both sides held the seats currently leaning their way, a split of the toss ups would mean very modest Republican gains.

However 18 current Republican seats are simply leaning GOP and not likely GOP.    For the Democrats that number is ten (or 13 if you add the districts already leaning to switch parties).    To get the 25 seats the Democrats would have to win most of the 15 toss ups, keep their leaners and win a large number of current seats that “lean” GOP.

Or to put it another way, there are 186 safe Republican seats and 150 safe Democratic seats.   If you add the likely wins to each total, it becomes 216 Republicans and 173 Democrats.   That means that if they keep those currently rated likely to remain with the party, the Republicans need to pick up only two of the 46 leaners and toss ups to keep their majority, while the Democrats would have to net 45.   Not easy.

There are a number of scenarios of how the election will play out.

Stable:  If everything plays out that each party wins 80% of their “leaners” and splits the toss ups, the GOP would end up with 239 seats, a net loss of three seats for the Republicans.    That would be a good outcome for them as it would stabilize their majority — the longer a member of Congress serves, the less likely he or she is to fail.

GOP advantage:  If the GOP ends up with an advantage and wins all its leaners, 2/3 of the tossups, and 30% of Democratic leaners they would end up with 248 seats, a pick up of six.   It sounds small, but such a result would be a smashing success for the Republicans after they swept almost all close districts and took many that previously were leaning Democratic.

Democratic advantage:  If the same scenario plays out for the Democrats, they would end up with 201 seats, a net gain of nine seats.    That would be less than half of what they would need to gain the house.

However, that’s the view a year out, meaning that we’re only at the half way point.   Calling football games at half time can be dangerous, so can elections.   If the economy improves and Obama emerges as a front runner, perhaps due to a weak Republican candidate or good economic news, one could see a mini-wave for the Democrats — a shift that would be markedly back in their favor, though not as strong as the political tsunami that swept the Republicans to power in 2010.

If that happens the Democrats could keep all their leaners, win 12 of the 15 toss ups, and take 60% of the GOP leaners.   That would give them 208 —  a pick up of 16, but short of control.   Right now, this seems to be to be the upper reach of what Democrats can hope for in 2012.   They could claim a moral victory, especially if the defeated represents the “tea party” wing of the GOP, but they’d still be a clear minority.

Of course if the wave is larger — if the toss ups ultimately all swing to the Democrats, they pick off a couple Republicans currently ranked likely (that often happens), and win 80% of the GOP leaners, they’d be in a position to retake the House — albeit barely.

The only way that’s going to happen is if starting soon there is consistently better news on the economy.  Voters have short memories.  If the forward outlook on the economy is good in July 2012 the doldrums of fall 2011 will be a distant memory.    With foreign policy successes and the GOP seen by many as too extreme, it is not hard to imagine that kind of scenario creating the possibility of what now appears an improbable Democratic wave.

So is the House in play in 2012?   Technically yes, since it’s too soon to make a definitive call one way or another.  But for Democrats at this point it’s a hope rooted in high expectations for the economy and President Obama’s fortunes improving over the next year.    Even if that improvement happens, it still may not be enough to give Democrats the prize.

For the Republicans, if things remain pretty much as they are today they’ll be sitting pretty.   If the Obama Presidency implodes, they may bolster their majority.   Even if Obama wins re-election and the economy improves, Republicans are still likely to keep a House majority.

The Democrats are in the position of a football team down 24-0 at halftime.   All of us have seen teams come back from that kind of deficit.  It requires a mix of good luck, good execution, brilliant adjustments and often the other side letting down their guard and getting over confident.  The odds are always against such a comeback, and they are against the Democrats now.   But in politics a year is an eternity and anything can happen.

UPDATE:  If the Democrats were to move towards having a big year, the indication would be a change in Sabato’s list of likely, leaning, toss ups, etc.   Print out the list as it stands today and compare it as the year goes on.  If it stays stable, it’s unlikely there will be a major shift.   If there is movement from, say GOP likely to lean, or leaning to toss up, that would be good news for the Democrats.  If the shifts are mostly from dem likely to lean or lean to tossup, that would be good for the Republicans.

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  1. #1 by Edwin Herdman on November 6, 2011 - 08:19

    I’d like to tentatively offer a correction: Off-year elections favor whoever old voters have clustered to. Unless the parties get savvy and find a way to reach across and reconcile the interests of “native born” Americans with immigrants, and the interests of young and old voters, we’re going to continue seeing not only this schizophrenic pattern of off-year elections going to revanchist (to use a non-neutral word for it) interests, and on-year elections going to the other parties, but more anger in the streets and more hidden episodes of mutual resentment amongst Americans. I guess I’ve revealed my vision for the future – if only the politicians would do the same.

    Of course, it may end up being simpler than that, with simple messaging problems taking over, as they often do; many people are blaming Obama for the sluggish pace of legislation and reform and I’ve heard reports that this may make the Hispanic electorate especially indifferent to his reelection.

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