Republicans Really Could Win It All This Year
A definitive guide to the 2014 elections from our new columnist.
By LARRY J. SABATO
January 06, 2014
For the last decade, Larry J. Sabato has been forecasting elections and analyzing the results—correctly predicting 98 percent of Senate, House and governor winners in, 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012. Starting with this column, Sabato, a university professor of politics and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, joins Politico Magazine as a regular contributor. Twice a month, he’ll be sharing his insights on how the 2014 midterm races are shaping up—and the factors that really matter.
Another midterm election beckons, and over the next 10 months we’ll see headlines about a thousand supposedly critical developments—the “game changers” and the “tipping points.” But we all know there aren’t a thousand powerful drivers of the vote. I’d argue that three factors are paramount: the president, the economy and the election playing field. And, at least preliminarily, those three factors seem to be pointing toward Republican gains in both houses in the 2014 midterms.
1. The president. His job approval numbers are perhaps the best indicator of the public’s overall political orientation at any given time, a kind of summary statistic that takes everything at the national level into account. In a large majority of cases, the president’s party does poorly in midterms, especially the second midterm of a two-term administration. It’s a rare president who doesn’t make enough mistakes by his sixth year to generate a disproportionate turnout among his opponents—thus producing a political correction at the polls. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower in 1958, Lyndon Johnson in 1966, Richard Nixon/Gerald Ford in 1974, Ronald Reagan in 1986 and George W. Bush in 2006 all experienced significant corrections in their sixth-year elections.
Still, this doesn’t always happen. Presidents Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 and Bush in 2002 managed to gain a few House seats, but this was in their first midterm. The Democrats lost no Senate seats and actually picked up a few in the House in 1998, President Bill Clinton’s second midterm.
President Barack Obama might take some heart from the Clinton example, but only up to a point. Like Clinton in 1994, Obama was unpopular enough by 2010 that Democrats lost the House in a landslide. That and partisan redistricting—a tactic engaged in by both parties but currently tilted to the GOP—reduces Republican chances for a House seat sweep in 2014 because there simply aren’t many additional seats available for Republicans, barring a tidal wave of voter anger even larger than 2010.
But Obama’s popularity has sagged badly in his fifth year. While some unforeseen event in 2014 might add some points to his job approval average, the odds are against a full restoration; it’s just as likely Obama’s polling average, currently in the low 40s, will decline further—though Obama may have a relatively high floor because of consistent backing from minority voters and other elements of the Democratic base.
As 2014 begins, the environment for the Democrats in this election year is not good. The botched, chaotic rollout of the Affordable Care Act is the obvious cause, but it is broader than that: the typical sixth-year unease that produces a “send-them-a-message” election. Fortunately for Democrats, the GOP-initiated shutdown of the federal government in October has tempered the public’s desire for a shift to the Republican side, too. “None of the above” might win a few races in November if voters had the choice.
2. The economy, but mainly if it’s bad. Eisenhower’s 57 percent approval rating couldn’t prevent Republicans from losing 47 House seats and 13 Senate seats in 1958 because of a shaky economy. GDP growth had contracted by an astounding 10.4 percent in the first quarter of that year, though it rebounded later in the year. More recently, there was the 2006 election; while most analysts thought the Democratic takeover of Congress that year was mainly about Bush’s war in Iraq, the economy wasn’t performing on all cylinders. GDP growth in the second and third quarters of 2006 was an anemic 1.6 percent and 0.1 percent, respectively. The economy, still reeling from the 2008 economic near-collapse, was also the root cause of the Democrats’ 2010 debacle.
As a general rule, the president's party does poorly in midterm elections. Especially the second midterm of a two-term administration.
But in politics the converse does not always prove the rule; in fact, a good economy doesn’t seem to help the president’s party much in many midterm elections, with 1950, 1966 and 1986 being strong examples. So while economic hard times are likely to hit a president’s party hardest, it may be that restless voters shift their concerns and unhappiness about a president to other topics in the absence of economic woes. So even if the economy continues to improve, Obama and the Democrats might not reap an electoral benefit.
3. The electoral playing field. How many vulnerable seats are there in the House for the president’s party? This is mainly a result of prior elections. A presidential victory with coattails (think 1936, 1948, 1964 and 2008) results in a party winning lots of vulnerable seats that can be swept away when the tides change in subsequent midterms. The Democrats lost their weaker members in 2010 and failed to add many seats in 2012; these disappointments protect them from drastic House losses this coming November.
The Senate is a different story. There is no such thing as a typical Senate election. These high-profile contests are idiosyncratic, driven by distinctive circumstances, sometimes quirky candidates and massive spending. A hidden determinant is the division of the Senate into three classes—one-third is elected every two years, making the combination of competitive Senate seats unpredictable and ever shifting, unlike in the heavily gerrymandered House. One party is usually favored to gain seats from the outset, thanks to the pattern of retirements as well as the structure of the Senate class on the ballot.
So: How many Democratic Blue or Republican Red seats are there in an election year? How many incumbents are running, and did any senators holding seats in states favoring the opposite party step aside? How strong has the candidate recruitment been in both parties? Generally speaking, this year’s Senate slate strongly favors the Republicans.
At this early stage, the combination of these three factors suggests a good election year for the GOP. The president is a Democrat and his approval is weak. The economy may be improving, based on GDP growth (4.1 percent in the third quarter), but voters still don’t believe their personal economy, at least, has picked up much. Instead, the major national issue of the moment is Obamacare, which at this point is a loser for Democrats. The structure of the election in the House and Senate also bends in the GOP direction.
Let’s translate that general outlook into concrete totals for 2014.
The House: In 35 of the 38 midterms conducted since the start of the Civil War, the president’s party has lost ground in the U.S. House, and never has a president’s party netted anywhere close to the 17 seats the Democrats would need to win the House this year. History alone argues that the Democrats’ attempt to take back the House is effectively without precedent.
Other metrics also suggest that the Democrats are a long shot. Averages of the House generic ballot—the poll question that measures whether voters support a Republican or a Democrat in their House district—show essentially a tie (RealClearPolitics) or Republicans up slightly (HuffPost Pollster). A model by Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz projects that Democrats will need an enormous generic-ballot polling lead—possibly as much as 13 percent—to win House control in 2014. With the current polling, Abramowitz’s model estimates a gain of roughly five to 10 seats for the Republicans.
Despite House retirements that have disproportionately gone the Democrats’ way and made some fairly safe GOP seats very competitive, a smallish Republican gain seems the likeliest outcome in the House, and in few if any conceivable scenarios could the Democrats score a 17-seat net gain. The GOP will have to try mightily to kick away their House majority. It takes some imagination to conjure up something more foolish than the October shutdown for harming Republican interests, but that’s what would be required, and then some.
Perhaps more interesting to the House long term is whether Democrats can capture a few generally Republican but now open suburban/exurban seats in northern Virginia, central New Jersey and greater Tampa. With much of Appalachia and the South apparently closed to Democrats at the moment, these seats are probably necessary pieces of a future Democratic House majority.
The Senate: Democrats are quick to admit, at least privately, that 2014’s lineup is a terrible Senate map for them. These Senate seats were last on the ballot in 2008, when the winds were at the Democrats’ backs and Republicans were demoralized by President George W. Bush’s unpopularity and the economic crisis. Conditions are quite different now. President Obama’s average percentage of the two-party 2012 vote in these states was just 46.6 percent, worst among the three Senate classes. Democratic senators currently represent seven states that Mitt Romney won: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia. Meanwhile, the only Republican who represents an Obama state on the 2014 list is the virtually unbeatable Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.
In 2014 the Senate map unmistakably favors Republicans—although they have recent experience in throwing away their inherent advantages. The GOP almost automatically inherits the Democratic seats held by Sens. Tim Johnson and Jay Rockefeller in the red states of South Dakota and West Virginia, with a better-than-even chance for the Montana seat of Max Baucus (and his probable appointed Democratic successor, Lt. Gov. John Walsh). At the moment, the most competitive Senate general election races involving incumbents are in GOP-leaning states. Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) are all hard pressed as they seek to win another term.
Of course it is possible Republican seats in Georgia (open) and Kentucky (Sen. Mitch McConnell) could become competitive, but it is about as likely that one or more of the Democratic seats in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan and New Hampshire could produce tight contests.
When a party faces a difficult map, it often suffers even when national conditions favor it. For instance, President Ronald Reagan went into the 1986 midterms with a 63 percent approval rating, and GDP grew at a solid 3.9 percent in the third quarter of that year. The Iran-Contra scandal had not yet surfaced. Still, the Republicans lost eight seats and control of the Senate, partly because they were overextended on that year’s map. Six years earlier, Reagan’s ample margin over President Jimmy Carter had added a dozen new GOP senators, some of whom were too politically weak to stand on their own.
Ultimately, the 2014 battle for the Senate, which Democrats now hold 55-45, is close. It will be an enormous shock if Republicans do not gain seats and at least reduce the margin of Democratic control. If the GOP can restrain its cannibalistic instincts and tendency to nominate flawed candidates, then to retake the Senate it need only match the post-World War II average gain of six seats for the party out of power in the White House in the sixth year of two-term administrations. At this point, I’d set the over/under on Republican gains in the Senate at 3.5, and I’d take the over—meaning a net gain of four or more Senate seats for the GOP. If Republicans end up dipping under, they will have had their third consecutive underperformance in Senate contests. On the contrary, if even a modest-sized wave develops for Republicans next fall, the third time could be the charm for the GOP’s goal of a Senate takeover.
The ebb and flow of politics is one of the few constants throughout American history, and 2014 will be no exception. The GOP fared well in 2002 and 2004, then it was the Democrats’ turn in 2006 and 2008. Since then, the back-and-forth cycle has speeded up, with Republicans winning handsomely in 2010 and Democrats in 2012. In the quick “surge and decline” politics of our highly polarized era, the early bet has to be on Republicans to do well in 2014—despite themselves.