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Why the GOP Could Keep the House in 2012

A Commentary By Glen Bolger and Jim Hobart

Friday, April 15, 2011

If Barack Obama’s political standing is helped by a slowly recovering economy, talk among Democrats will quickly turn to taking back the House. However, control of the House of Representatives after the 2012 elections will still belong to the Republicans.

There are three compelling arguments for why Republicans will keep the House. These three factors will have a snowball effect, costing Democrats in retirements, candidate recruitment and fundraising–all of which will further debilitate their comeback efforts.

The first factor is that even presidents who easily win reelection do not have long coattails. Look at the last three reelected presidents–Reagan in 1984, Clinton in 1996 and Bush in 2004. Two were blowouts and one was close. In 1984, the GOP won 16 House seats. In 1996, the Dems picked up nine House seats. In the two blowout reelections, the president’s party picked up an average of just 12.5 seats. In the close election of 2004, Republicans won three seats. Across the three elections, the average pickup for the president is 9.3 seats. Obama is not likely to win a blowout reelection. Given Obama’s problems with white working class voters and the unifying effect he has on the GOP base, he is much more likely headed for either a close win or a loss, rather than a big win.

The table below looks at the five most recent presidential reelections–three wins and two losses. The two losses show inconclusive results–although it is clear that Ross Perot’s inclusion on the ballot did not hurt House Republican candidates. The table emphasizes that when reelected presidents have coattails, those coattails are very  short, if they exist at all. Only newly-elected presidents might have sizable coattails.

The second factor putting a stake through the vampire hearts of the Democrats’ hopes of controlling the House after 2012 is the overwhelming shift in redistricting fortunes. Because of GOP gains in gubernatorial races and state legislatures, there will be a dramatic change in the structure of the 2012 House races. In the 2001 redistricting process, Democrats drew the lines of 135 seats, while GOPers drew the lines for 98–a 37-seat advantage for the Dems. Now, Republicans control drawing 193 seats outright, while the Dems have just 44. That is a 149-seat advantage for the GOP (the rest of the seats are either in split-control states, commission-drawn states, at-large seats or currently undecided). That represents a 186-seat shift in favor of the GOP from 2001–and Republicans have won three out of five congressional majorities since then.

That does not  mean Republicans can draw numerous seats they will win (as many have pointed out, demographic shifts make drawing new safe Republican seats challenging), but it does  mean the GOP can shore up many vulnerable incumbents. The Republican redistricting strategy will focus on protecting their sizable majority, which will make taking back the House all the more difficult for Democrats.

The table below underscores the dramatic change in the redistricting situation over the last 30 years–going from a GOP disadvantage of -172 net seats in 1981, to -167 in 1991 (making the 1994 GOP takeover even that much more earth shattering) to just -37 in 2001 to +149 today, as noted above. This is not  Tip O’Neill or Jim Wright’s Congress anymore. Heck, it is not even Nancy Pelosi’s Congress, and it is not going to be her Congress in 2013-14 either.

The third and final factor that makes winning back the House a difficult proposition for Democrats is the voting patterns of the districts identified as battlegrounds for 2012. In a recent survey conducted by our friends at Democracy Corps, they identified 50 Republican-held districts as battleground districts for 2012. According to Democracy Corps, 44 of the 50 were won by President Obama, and the districts were chosen “based on the 2008 presidential margin, the 2010 congressional margin and race rating from Charlie Cook and others.”

While the number of Obama districts sounds daunting, some other data reveal how tough the vast majority of these districts will be for Democrats to win in 2012.

  • The average Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI) for these districts is Republican +1.1.
  • Only 16 of the 50 districts have positive Dem PVI scores.
  • Of the 16 districts with a positive PVI score, eight are in either Ohio or Pennsylvania, states where Republicans control the redistricting process and will be able to draw lines favorable to vulnerable incumbents.
  • Just 12 of these districts were won by John Kerry in 2004.

For comparison purposes:

  • The average PVI for the 66 Republican pickups in 2010 was Republican +5.
  • 53 of the Republican pickups had positive GOP PVI scores.
  • Bush won 57 of Republican pickup districts in 2004.

Republicans in 2010 had an abundance of traditionally Republican seats to target and could have taken back the House without winning a single seat with a positive Dem PVI or a seat won by John Kerry in 2004. Democrats in 2012 are not as fortunate. In order to win the 25 seats they need to take back the House, Democrats will most likely need to win no fewer than 13 districts won by Bush in 2004. The 2010 results underscore just how difficult a proposition that is. Despite Republicans’ historic gains in the House, just nine of the seats they won in 2010 were Kerry districts.

Democrats have labeled their quest to take back the House as the “Drive to 25,” but it is clear that their hopes for taking back the majority in 2012 will be stuck in neutral. Even if President Obama’s approval rating begins to rebound and voters begin to see signs in their own lives that the economy is improving, Democrats will still be confronted with the absence of presidential coattails, the Republican advantage in redistricting and battleground districts that tilt towards Republicans.

As a result, Republicans will keep the House in 2012. Guaranteed.

Glen Bolger is a partner and co-founder of the political and public affairs polling firm of Public Opinion Strategies. Jim Hobart is a project director for the firm, which polls for 70 members of the House, 20 senators and five governors.

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