The PPFA Midterm Preview-and-Prediction-palooza, Part II: The House

Okay, so the Republicans will keep the Senate. But what about the House? In this current Congress, the Democrats seat 193 members of the House. Since 218 are needed for a majority, the question we ask today is: can they add 25 seats?

One last time, let’s check in on…


The Big Three Indicators

A. Generic ballot (according to Real Clear Politics average of polls):

October 23Democrats 48.8Republicans 41.1 (Dems +7.7)
October 30Democrats 49.5Republicans 41.9 (Dems +7.6)
November 6: Democrats 49.7, Republicans, 42.4 (Dems +7.3)

We see a half-point climb for the Republican Party’s popularity, but it’s nothing too race-changing. This statistic continues to be welcome news for the Democrats, as recent history suggests that having a solid generic ballot lead on election day translates to a win in the House. Here are the last four midterm generic ballots and results, according to Real Clear Politics:

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For four midterms running, the party who wins the generic ballot wins the actual vote and wins the actual House. Still, there are a few hopeful takeaways for Republicans here:

  1. On three of these four House elections, including the sole Democratic win, the actual result was about three points stronger for Republicans than the generic ballot indicated. If that happens again, the current Democratic lead on the generic ballot would translate to a win of just over four points — less than the 5.6-point win FiveThirtyEight thinks the Democrats would need to win the House.
  2. Instructive to that last point, look at how the Democratic 7.9-point win in 2006 translated to just 233 House seats, whereas the more recent Republican wins, which were by a point or two less, earned them 9 to 14 more House seats. (What a system!)
  3. Though no other poll found Democrats with less than a five-point lead, one of the generic ballots actually has the Republicans up one. That poll is Rasmussen. You might call it right-leaning, but I call it the most accurate poll of the 2016 election.

B. Trump approval (RCP average):

October 23: Approve: 44.2; Disapprove: 52.0 (-7.8)
October 30: Approve: 44.2; Disapprove: 52.4 (-8.2)
November 6: Approve 43.6; Disapprove: 53.2 (-9.6)

True to the last 22 months, President Trump’s approval rating remains stuck between two bumpers. Whenever his numbers get too low or, in this case, too high, they bounce in the other direction. People who have an opinion of him rarely waver, so he continues to have the stablest approval rating in modern American history. (As charted by FiveThirtyEight, no modern approval rating ever had less polling volatility in its first 500 days.) Despite a looming election, when even independently minded members of tribes usually come home to support their party, his approval could only climb so much before he hit the bumper again.

If we again turn to political history as a guide, we have this chart from Gallup, which lists presidential approval numbers alongside seats gained or lost by the president’s party in a midterm:

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President Trump’s 44 percent puts him right below President Obama’s first midterm number of 45 percent. That number cost Obama 67 House seats. President Johnson’s 44 percent in 1966 lost him 47.

Of course, again giving the GOP hope is that the best comparison for this midterm is not Obama or Johnson. Due to the aforementioned Republican advantage when converting national votes to actual Congressional seats, examining the most recent Republican president is more apt. In 2006, President Bush had a 37 percent approval rating and lost 30 seats. The Democrats need to add just 25, but President Trump is about six points more popular than President Bush was in his second midterm. That might be enough to keep Democratic gains under 25.

With such mixed results, we should turn to…

C. The Cook Report‘s Congressional district breakdown: 

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Republicans continue to weaken at the district level, and the “safe/likely” starting points look better and better for Democrats.

All right, I think we’re ready for…


The Election Night Preview

Just like yesterday, before I get to my final prediction, which will, of course, be wrong, I’d like to be of more accurate service by providing tonight’s timeline. Which House races should we be watching at what times?

First, here’s a nifty map provided by 270ToWin. (Though its purpose was for 2016, I double-checked the closing times for 2018, and they are the same.)

closing_times
Arkansas. So hipster.

Now, since it’s impractical to follow all 435 House races, we’ll want to whittle it down. My first thought was to consider all the Cook “toss-ups” and “leaners” in both directions, but even that leaves us 75 races! That’s still too many.

Instead, I’ve determine we can focus all our energy on the 29 “toss-ups held by the GOP.” Here’s why:

  • Let’s say they mostly tilt toward Republicans — perhaps two-thirds of them, or 20 out of the 29. That means almost all of those leaners went Republican as well, right? Republicans would have their 166 safe/likely seats plus, let’s say, 25 of their 29 leaners, plus 20 of the toss-ups. That gives them 211 seats — just seven seats short of the 218 majority before we even consider those toss-up and leaner Democrats that are probably more Republican than the polls suggested. Thus, if Republicans win most of their toss-ups, I’d say the race is theirs.
  • On the flipside, what if it’s the Democrats that win most of those 29 Republican-held toss-ups? Let’s give them just barely a majority of the category — 15. Like the Republican scenario, that would mean they won almost all of their own leaners. They start with their 194 safe/likelies, then we’ll give them 13 of their 17 leaner/toss-ups, and then the 15 Republican-held toss-ups. That puts them at 222 and over the majority 218 mark even before we consider the random Republican leaners that turn blue.

So yes, I feel confident focusing on just the one category, as the fate of its races should be the fate of the entire House election. Cook lists those Republican-held tossups as follows:

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Now let’s order them into the poll closing chronology….

7:00–4 races (Georgia 6th district, Kentucky 6th, Virginia 2nd, Virginia 7th)
7:30–3 races (North Carolina 9th, North Carolina 13th, Ohio 12th)
8:00–8 races (Florida 15th, Florida 26th, Illinois 14th, Maine 2nd, New Jersey 3rd, New Jersey 7th, Pennsylvania 1st, Pennsylvania 10th)
8:30–0 Republican-held toss-ups in Arkansas
9:00–7 races (Kansas 2nd, Michigan 8th, New Mexico 2nd, New York 19th, New York 22nd)
10:00–2 races (Iowa 3rd, Utah 4th)
11:00–5 races, all in California: the 10th, 25th, 39th, 45th, and 48th districts
12:00–0 Republican-held toss-ups in Alaska

Each one by definition should be fairly close, but, unlike statewide elections, they’ll take less time to count. I suspect we’ll consistently get calls in these 29 races throughout the night. I encourage all PPFA readers to keep score at home. Treat it like a March Madness bracket. Make an Excel spreadsheet or something. I’d be surprised if the party who wins a majority of these doesn’t win control of the House of Representatives.


Final House Prediction

Though not convincingly, all three of my indicators — generic ballot, presidential approval, and district momentum — generally point toward the Democrats. Of course, if anyone could upend historical indicators, it’s Donald F. Trump, but, because I’m a little slow, he’ll have to prove it to me yet again.

The House of Representatives will flip to the Democratic Party. Forced to pick a number, I say 223 to 212.

Though it wouldn’t shock me if Republicans kept the House, I would be surprised if they won the popular vote. If they win the House without winning the popular vote just two years after the same thing happened in the presidential election, we’re going to hear an even louder drumbeat from the left to modify an increasingly undemocratic system. We already know the rural voter has more voting power than an urban voter over the presidency and Senate, but if the House — which supposedly has representation tied directly to population —  starts down that road too, watch out for some “angry mobs.”


Overall Prediction

Republicans narrowly win the Senate, Democrats narrowly win the House. Not only is Congress divided, but each chamber is almost torn nearly in half as well. Nothing could better encapsulate today’s America.

Both sides spin the night’s results like they’re working in an industrial textile mill. The President and his party point to the Senate holding firm. Democrats point to winning millions of more Senate and House votes across the country. Neither side offers sufficient context. The American people have difficulty deciphering the noise, and, since few have found PPFA, they trust their biased media outlet to do it for them.

Moving forward, the President will be hounded by the Democratic House, and he’ll resist every step of the way. In two years, he’ll use its antics to appeal to the country for re-election and another fully Republican Congress. Any economic downturn will be blamed on the Democrats. Any gridlock will be blamed on the Democrats. Any problem period will be blamed on the Democrats. (This inevitability gives credence to a theory that the President actually wants Democrats to take the House.[1]) Conversely, Democrats will blame all bad developments on the increasing distance between the present and the last Democratic President.

Meanwhile, as the Democratic Party puts forward a united front against him in the House, at a more granular level it will slowly fracture into factions when 20 of its members declare for the presidency. Each is eager to be the nominee against a President who has alienated a majority of the country. You think this election cycle was dramatic? Just wait until the next one. The entire House will again be up for re-election. A new third of the Senate will be, too, and it’ll be a bit more winnable for the Democrats. And, of course, the presidency itself will be on the ballot. Staring tomorrow, you’ll have approximately two months to catch your breath.

So breathe deep.


FOOTNOTES:

[1]The idea is that A) the survivors of the Republican thinning would be pro-Trumpers in pro-Trump areas of the country, and B) he could run against a Democratic House in two years, and blame all problems on them instead of a government his party totally controls. That would explain why his midterm strategy was to fire up the base in deep red states, which helped keep the Senate but alienated independents and suburban areas in swing House districts. It would also explain why he punted on a positive closing message of an improving economy in favor of what the left describes as racially charged fear-mongering.

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