Republicans Not In A Position To Retake the House (Yet)

by: Chris Bowers

Mon Sep 21, 2009 at 12:23

This is the first Open Left House forecast for 2010.  I currently estimate a Republican net gain of 17 seats, for a Democratic majority of 240-195--Chris

Over the past month, nine polling firms have published surveys on the national House ballot. Looking only at the most recent poll from each of those nine pollsters, the results show Democrats maintaining a decent advantage.

House Generic Ballot Polling, 8/20-9/20
Dem % Rep % Pollster Date Type Partisan
41.2% 37.7%
46% 38% Polimetrix 9/15 Internet None
42% 34% Ipsos 8/31 Live Phone None
40% 32% Selzer 9/14 Live Phone None
47% 41% GQR 9/16 Live Phone Dem
34% 28% R2000 9/17 Live Phone Dem
45% 44% Pew 8/27 Live Phone None
36% 36% OnMessage 9/10 Live Phone Rep
40% 41% Rasmussen 9/13 Automated Rep
41% 45% PPP 8/30 Automated Dem
A Democratic advantage of 41.2%-37.7% is a far cry for the supposed Republican wave we keep hearing about. Democrats are, after all, still winning.

These numbers are placed in more context--context which, I might ad, is something that blogs do a far, far better job of providing than any other medium when it comes to electoral forecasting--below the fold. The bottom line this, my first crude House forecast for 2010, is that Republicans are not currently poised to retake the House.  Currently, I project a Republican gain of 17 seats, for a partisan balance of 240-195 in favor of Democrats.

More in the extended entry

Chris Bowers :: Republicans Not In A Position To Retake the House (Yet)
Generic ballot numbers in context, and how they lead to a first crude House forecast:

  • shows Democrats ahead by 1.3%, Real Clear Politics by 3.7%. has slightly more favorable numbers for Republicans than mine, showing the Democratic advantage at only 1.3%. However, due to the nature of their methodology, this far out from an election they will place more weight on those polling firms that release more polls: Rasmussen, Democracy Corps, and Polimetrix. The strong weight toward Rasmussen in particular presents a more favorable picture for Republicans than would be the case if more polling firms were releasing polls.

    Real Clear Politics, a conservative election forecaster, actually shows Democrats ahead by 3.7%--even more than my numbers.

  • Generic Ballot reasonably predicts final national vote totals Over the last six House elections (1998-2008), there has been a mean error of 1.8% from the final polling average in the generic congressional ballot to the final House national vote. That really is about as accurate as can be expected from polling and electoral forecasting. I would feel better with an error rate of 1.4%, but 1.8% isn't far off from that ideal.

  • Republicans do not tend to do better from final polls to final results. Over the last six House elections, Republicans improved on their margin from the final polls to the final results by a mean of 1.6% and a median of 1.5%. However, rather than seeing some sort of great conspiracy or excellent Republican ground game in this, it is likely that this is a statistical quirk due to a small sample size of only six elections.

    Research I conducted on the 2004 and 2006 elections showed Democrats gaining an average of 0.5% from the final polls to the final results across 42 statewide elections. In a preliminary study I have conducted of the 33 closest statewide elections in 2008 (Presidential and Senate), Democrats gained a mean of 0.40% from the final polls to the final result. I will complete and publish this study later in the week.

    The 75 data points showing Democrats improving from the final polls to the final results by 0.4-0.5% easily outweigh 6 six House-specific data points showing Republicans improving by 1.5%-1.6%.  Due to the nature of polling, the type of elections that are being polled do not matter.

  • Republicans far off from the Democratic position in 2005. In the fall of 2005, there was not a single congressional generic ballot where Democrats led by less than 5%, and the average Democratic advantage hovered around 8-9%. Given that they still trail by 3.5% in my numbers, 3.7% according to Real Clear Politics and 1.3% according to, Republicans are at least 9%, and as much as 12%, behind where Democrats were at this same point in 2005.

  • Not enough seats for Republicans: Let's say that Democrats win the national House popular vote by 2.8%, which is the average forecast of Real Clear Politics, and myself. This would represent a 6.1% improvement for Republicans from 2008. If the margin in all House campaigns from 2008-2009 shifted 6.1% in favor of Republicans, they would net a total 18 seats (17 from 2008, plus NY-20), and a partisan make-up of 239-196 in favor of Democrats.

    As such, in order to even come close to taking back the House, Republicans need a much larger shift than 6.1%, and / or for that shift to be disproportionate to swing districts. Right now, there is no convincing evidence that either the Republican position will continue to improve nationally, or that the gains they have made are concentrated in swing districts. This is not to say this won't happen-just that there is no evidence either way.

Overall, these numbers lead me to a forecast of a 17-seat Republican gain. This comes from the 18 seats in the final bullet point, minus the Louisiana 2nd, which at a PVI of D+25 is a virtual lock to switch back to Democrats (it only flipped in 2008 due to severe corruption from former Representative William Jefferson).

In summary, the current hysteria about Republicans poised to take back the House is simply not borne out by the numbers. Still, due to the lack of district-level detail at this time, there is a wide range of error in this prediction-it could be anywhere from a 10-25 Republican net gain, according to current numbers. As we get closer to the election, eventually I will abandon use of the generic Congressional ballot entirely, and produce the forecast only on a seat-by-seat basis.

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Not To Mention (4.00 / 2)
that this far out the variance between polled percentages and election results is huge.

It's still far better to watch this stuff than not. But keep in mind that much salt is needed with even the best of quantitative analysis at this time.

And, speaking of best analysis... how about a breakdown of South/Non-South, seeing how sharply the South still diverges from the rest of the country.  If the GOP gains are 2/3rds-3/4ths from the South, then even the 17-seat gain may be over-stated by half or more.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

Another important factor: Open Seats (4.00 / 4)
Right now, there's 11 Republicans leaving and only 7 Democrats slated to leave behind an open seat.

In 1994 (4.00 / 3)
according to politicalarithmetik, the Democrats had a 3.35 advantage in the generic ballot.  In fact, what is odd is that the Democrats had significant generic ballots from 1994 to 2000 but still lost.  Here are the numbers:

2000: +5.26
1998: +8.03
1996: +5.45
1994: +3.35

You could argue, I suppose, that polling has gotten better since then (though such analysis is not supported by a review of election polling).  

There is some anecdotal evidence of the presence of an emerging wave.  The best evidence I have seen of this is in the low re-elect numbers of incumbents in Blue States.  Patty Murray in Washington for example had a re-elect number under 45 in the most recent Elway poll.  There are also challengers in seats where challengers have not been present before (see some of the Tennesse seats).

On top of this must be added an understanding of the economy and its impact on politics. The follwoing table shows economic metrics and Reagan's approval ratings.

The approval data is from CBS/NYT polling, which breaks out approval for foriegn policy and domestic issues.  It is worth noting that polls are sometimes a couple of weeks from the exact end of the quarter.  

The Repbublicans lost 26 seats in 1982.  Unemployment went from 7.5 to 10.8, and at the end of the year Reagan's approval rating was at 41 (other polling from Gallup shows him at 36). A mere 12 motnhs later Reagan approval rating was at 57 and he was on his way to a landslide victory.

But note in this regard the GDP growth during 1983.  In the last 3 quarters it exceeded 8% (on an annual basis).  We are unlikely to see growth that spectacular.  

We are more likely to see recover numbers similar to those in 1991.  And these are the numbers that should be giving all of us nightmares.  Note that the technically, the recession ended Q1 of 1991.  For Bush the problem this was followed by anemic GDP numbers and during this period unemployment continued to rise.  This is far more likely to be the economic story from now until next November and while the are many differences between now and 1992 they strongly suggest real problems for Demcorats: probably far worse than is apparent now.

Different Slopes For Different Folks (0.00 / 0)
This handy-dandy little chart comes from my "Three Waves and A Wall" diary series (#4):

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Iron rule (4.00 / 1)
It's an iron rule that the party that wins the popular vote in the House wins the House.  Period.  I don't have my data handy but IIRC, the last time a party won the House (more seats) but lost the collective popular vote for all House seays was 1942.  The reason then was lower vote totals in the South sue to unopposed seats and much lower participation rates (Jim Crow was only part of it).

I think 17 might be pessimistic but not by much.  Mike Castle's retirement, for example, is at least a 50-50 shot and that would hand another seat to the Democrats.  McHugh's seat could easily flip in the special.

I also expect that the U-6, now 16.5% will continue to slowly drop to perhaps 12 or 13%.  We probably peaked at 16.8%.  FDR showed that you don't have to be out of the woods to claim electoral victory, you just have to show progress.  If Bermanke had shut up (out of the recession?) the proper response (not a Hoover response) is that we are making slow progress but have along ways to go.

Thanks (0.00 / 0)
It took a while to compile the data.  That woyld be a rare exception.  And not a 3% edge either.  Clinton eased off a bit in the last week and, as I predicted at the time, it led directly to his impeachment.  I kept sa

[ Parent ]
More data (4.00 / 1)
Democrats edged Republicans in 1996 by 280,000 total votes.  In 1984, Democrats managed an even smaller edge and held onto the House during the Reagan landslide.  Those are the two closest calls either way dating back to 1964.  It still holds.  The party that wins the popular vote wins the House.  The kind of margin you are seeing is pretty darned safe.

Bob Dole's campaign may have been comical but his "save the House" drive at the end worked.  Unfortunately.  Clinton made one of the biggest mistakes in his career by playing it safe.  No Republican House meant no impeachment.  And it was close.  You don't play nice or play it safe against modern Republicans.  You have to go for the jugular.  All the time.

[ Parent ]
Worth Noting (4.00 / 3)
An 18 seat defeat would leave the Democrats with a bigger majority than the republicans EVER held when they were in the majority from 1995-2007.    

Clear Evidence (4.00 / 2)
That the republicans are in touch with Real America and are surging back into power!  Why can't democrats win elections? /media

[ Parent ]
Biggest since 1947-49 (4.00 / 2)
Following the election of 1946, Republicans held 246 House seats.  Democrats picked up 75 House seats in Truman's Do Nothing Congress Campaign of 1948 and they have not hit 240 since.  It's been over 60 years since they were at that level and you have to go back to the 1920s before they were at 240 regularly.

Republicans, and particularly conservative Republicans, ruled with an iron fist in the 1995-2007 era with slim majorities.  And they dare to complain about Pelosi?  Scum bags of illogic.

[ Parent ]
It sounds like (4.00 / 1)
we can feed them quite a few blue dogs without any worries, then.

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
It's The Regions That Count (4.00 / 1)
     It would be more useful to look at the support by regions of the country. Usually these polls provide regional cross-tabs. The South drags the national average for the Republicans higher, but Republican support in the South has no effect beyond the 131 seats elected from Confederate states. Obama beat McCain 57.3% to 42.7% outside the South, but lost the eleven Confederate states and Kentucky 53.8% to 46.2%, a difference of 11.1% between the South and the rest of the country. If Republicans got 54% of the vote in those 131 districts and 48.3% in each of the other 304 districts, they'd get 50% nationwide, but win only 131 seats.



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