MIDTERMS OCTOBER 17, 2013
The shutdown is over, but it lasted more than long enough to inflict significant damage to the Republican brand. A plurality of voters blamed the GOP for the shutdown, poll after poll shows the GOP’s favorability rating near record lows. And as a result, a once unthinkable Democratic takeover of the House is conceivable, even if it remains improbable.
That will disappoint Democrats, but perhaps it shouldn’t. Inefficient distribution of Democratic voters, gerrymandering, incumbency, and poor recruiting combine to give the Republicans an exceptionally strong grip on the House. An off-year electorate and an incumbent Democratic president with mediocre approval ratings make Democratic gains every more difficult. Don’t forget that last November, Democrats fell well-short of retaking the House, even with favorable turnout and a meaningful national Democratic advantage. All considered, it’s remarkable that we’re entertaining a Democratic takeover in 2014—that’s a testament to the deep unpopularity of the Republican Party, and a colossal miscalculation by its ultraconservative wing.
But it would take a tsunami, like 2006, to make Democrats a clear favorite to break the GOP’s iron grip on the House. The post-shutdown polls do show a modest wave on the horizon, about thirteen months from shore. On average, Democrats lead by about 7.1 points on the generic congressional ballot, which tends to correlate with the eventual House popular vote. A 7 point Democratic advantage, if it held to Election Day 2014, would put the GOP in danger of losing the House. It would probably mean a long Election Night, with the outcome coming down to the margins—whether the Democrats get favorable recruits, strong turnout, a few more GOP retirements, or a few surprise upsets on deeply conservative terrain.
But even if public outrage with the GOP persists at today’s levels, there are good reasons to question whether the wave will endure through November 2014. Unlike real waves, electoral waves shrink as they approach the shore. Political scientists have found that the generic ballot overestimates the president’s party this far from an election. That’s part of why Alan Abramowitz estimates that Democrats need a 13 point Democratic edge on September 1 to win the 17 seats necessary to retake the chamber in November.
The eventual addition of likely voter screens will further dampen the Democratic wave, even if registered voters continue to support Democrats at today’s levels. Lower non-white and youth turnout in an off-year election will hurt Democrats, and it could take several points off of today’s Democratic advantage. Ahead of the 2010 midterm elections, for instance, Pew Research found Democrats ahead by 1 point among registered voters, but down by 5 among likely voters. That makes it hard to imagine that Democrats will maintain the entirety of the 8 or 6 point Democratic edge among registered voters reported by NBC/WSJ and Pew Research. Even in 2012, the likely voter screen took 3 points off Obama’s lead in the final Pew Research survey.
And even if Democrats did hold a 7 point lead among likely voters in early November 2014, the generic ballot question itself might contain residual bias toward Democrats. Historically, the generic ballot has tended to overstate the Democratic share of the House popular vote, sometimes by a wide margin. The Guardian’s Harry Enten points out that this bias may have subsided in recent cycles, but it was present as recently as 2006—just one midterm ago. It’s also possible that none of this is really “bias,” but that the generic ballot just isn’t all that accurate. The generic ballot polls can seem all over the place, even when they come close in the aggregate.
So if the only facts I knew about this election were that it was 1) October of an odd-numbered year; 2) Democrats had an average lead of about 7 points on the generic ballot; and 3) the incumbent Democratic president had an approval rating in the low forties, I would not believe that Democrats were poised to retake the chamber.
And we know more about this election than those three facts. Here’s one fact: The newfound Democratic advantage on the generic ballot comes in at the height of a government shutdown, which could easily be as bad as it gets for the GOP. And yet even now, Democrats aren’t approaching 50 percent of the vote in generic ballot surveys. So if there’s no tsunami now, there’s plenty of cause to be doubtful that one will emerge later. The preponderance of undecided voters are Republican-leaners who voted to reelect their representatives last November; they’ll probably come home by Election Day.
Just consider the last 13 months. The president was reelected, Newtown, the fiscal cliff, gun control failed, the NSA and Snowden, the sequester, immigration reform stalled, Syria, and now a two-week government shutdown. Some of these things benefited the Democrats, others, probably more, benefited the Republicans. We live in interesting times, and memories of the shutdown will fade by November 2014.
Perhaps those memories will be replaced by a few new crises, and the public will be compelled to make an unprecedented decision to summarily dismiss the opposition to an incumbent president with middling approval ratings. Maybe people won't forget, and they'll vote on the shutdown next November. I’d bet against it, but we can deal with that when the time comes. Ultimately, there’s no need to try and predict the future, which I cannot do. For now, we can just say that the shutdown doesn’t look it broke the GOP’s grip on the House.