2014 Midterm Preview Part Two: The House of Representatives
I tend not to make predictions on this blog, but when it comes to the House of Representatives in the 2014 elections, the word ‘prediction’ doesn’t really apply. The Republican Party simply will retain control of the chamber.
The truth of this has been so naturally accepted that most people have not stopped to ask why it should be so certain. Is this House Republican cohort not the same one that shut down the government last year over a fight they had long lost? Polls showed that the nation disapproved of the shutdown and blamed the Republican Party for it. This current Congress has received the lowest approval ratings since records began, and yet its dominant party is seen as certain to keep control. Is this not remarkable?
Of course, the shutdown was ostensibly about raising the debt ceiling (a routine measure that Ronald Reagan applied eighteen times during his presidency), and economic factors are usually what win elections. But the deficit has fallen massively; back to the level it was before the recession. It is now lower than the annual average of the past forty years. Unemployment has likewise plummeted, and is below 6% for the first time in Obama’s presidency. The economy is the strongest it has been in years, and yet the GOP still has a ‘greater than 99% chance’ to keep the House.
What makes this more remarkable is that the Republicans are doing this without the benefit of a strong, charismatic leader or even a unifying national theme to attract voters. This is not 1994 with Newt Gingrich pushing his Contract for America, this is not the Tea Party surge of 2010, and yet the Republicans are on course for their biggest majority since World War Two. What we have in 2014 could be a landslide by default. As Doug Rivers puts it, ‘there is no overriding issue other than that Republicans don’t like Obama and Democrats are lukewarm about Obama’.
Obama’s unpopularity is probably the most important single factor in this election. A Gallup poll showed that 32% of voters considered their vote in this election to be a specific message of opposition to the president – a statistic that rises to 58% when just Republicans are taken into account. Obama’s current favourability rating of 40% is the lowest it has ever been, and it shows by his total absence from the campaign materials of any Democratic candidate. Indeed, Democrats in this election would rather speak of their affinity for George W. Bush than Barack Obama – an absolutely unthinkable scenario in 2008.
Even if Obama were more popular, however, it is still likely that the Democrats would’ve lost seats in this election – the party of the sitting president almost always does in the midterms. In the past century, only three times has the president’s party actually managed to improve their showing in the House, with an average loss of 33 seats per midterm. The effect is amplified in the second midterm election of a two-term president’s reign – a phenomenon known as the ‘six-year itch’. Simply put, voters get tired of the incumbent. Opponents get invigorated and supporters stay home.
With all this said, there is also a more pernicious factor at play in the Republican surety to retain control of the House: gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is the practice of redrawing the lines that delineate congressional districts in order to give your party an electoral advantage. The practice creates bizarre congressional districts in the interest of grouping together certain voters (usually ethnic minorities) to dilute the actual worth of each individual vote. This produces districts like the ones below:
For comparison, Iowa is the only state in the nation to trust its districting to an independent, non-partisan staff. Its districts look like this:
Gerrymandering has made House elections not so much the voters choosing their representatives as the representatives choosing their voters.
It should be noted that this is not a purely Republican pastime – Maryland’s districts are testament to the guilt of certain Democrats on the issue – but gerrymandering has been an admitted, calculated part of official Republican policy since 2010, and one that has paid off handsomely in the elections since. It is to a large extent the reason why they will keep control of the House this year.
The scope of gerrymandering’s effectiveness is shown in the 2012 election results. That year, House Democrats received 1.17 million more votes than Republicans, but lost by 33 seats – only the second time since World War Two that the party with the majority of the popular vote has not taken the House.
David Wasserman claims that the extent of Republican gerrymandering in the past four years means that the Democratic Party would need to win a House election by ten points or more to gain control. Simply stated, in the sixth year of an unpopular president’s reign, that’s as close to impossible as anything in politics. In an election like this one, it goes a long way to explaining what could be a landslide by default.