Can the Democrats take the House in 2014? It’s certainly possible if two things happen. One is that the GOP thoroughly discredits itself in the eyes of voters. The other is that the economy improves significantly, making Obama and his party look better.
The latter seems almost a matter of luck at this point. There’s not much the Democrats can do, given Republican obstruction, to help the economy. All they can do is cross their fingers and hope the economic recovery blows through the fiscal drag that’s been holding it back recently.
The discrediting of the GOP, on the other hand, is not a matter of luck. It’s a matter of action — in this case, action by the GOP itself. The Republican Party currently sports a favorable rating barely above 30 percent and Congressional Republicans fare even worse with a 17 percent approval rating. Not content with these abysmal ratings, Republicans, as we are all painfully aware, are now shutting down the government in their quixotic quest to stop Obamacare and threatening next to force the US default on its bills by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. This is all massively unpopular — 72 percent of Americans think the shutdown is not justified, including 76 percent of independents and even 49 percent of Republicans.
This will surely hurt the GOP in 2014. The key question is how much.
If the damage is bad enough, they will give the Democrats a shot in the arm in an election where they really shouldn’t have one. As Congressional voting expert Kyle Kondik of Sabato’s Crystal Ball puts it: “[T]here’s no reason why the House should be in play this cycle, and if it is in play the Republicans will have only themselves to blame.”
So the GOP is cracking open the door for the Democrats. But just how much of a swing against the Republicans would we have to see for the Democrats to actually take back the House? This is a matter of some debate, but everyone starts from the assumption that, due to gerrymandering and the inefficient concentration of Democratic votes in heavily Democratic urban areas, the Democrats will have to get more than 50 percent of the vote to get 50 percent of the House seats. In 2012, Democrats received 50.6 percent of the two party vote but only got 46.2 percent of the seats. Therefore, they are likely to need more than 50.6 percent of the vote to take back the House.
Political scientist Theodore Arrington recently quantified the Democrats’ popular vote tipping point by analyzing patterns of the House vote going back to 1972. Interestingly, he found that in the 1990’s, there was actually a slight bias toward the Democrats: a Democratic House popular vote of 50 percent was likely to be rewarded with slightly more than 50 percent of the House seats. However, that bias shifted toward the Republicans last decade and now, based on the latest redistricting and the 2012 election results, the pro-GOP bias is stronger than ever. Arrington estimates that the Democrats need about 53 percent of the popular vote to get a majority of the House seats.
The good news for Democrats: Democratic Congressional candidates exceeded that level in both 2006 and 2008 and some recent polls (e.g., Quinnipiac) have had their lead above that, even before the shutdown took effect. The bad news: it’s still a steep hill to climb in this election cycle and Republicans would have to mess up even worse than they already have to keep an anti-GOP wave of this magnitude going through November, 2014. But we’re learning to never underestimate the dysfunctionality and sheer craziness of today’s Republican party. They could yet snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.