Tom is back with his latest look at the midterms. His first midterm article, back in February, set the stage, and the second, in April, took an early look at the Senate. Now Tom’s focus is on the House.
Once again it is time for that ritual of American politics,
the evisceration of a first-term president in his (yes, all “his” so far) first
midterms. Joe Biden seems right on course
to suffer the fate of so many of his predecessors, to lose big in the House of
Representatives on November 8, 2022. Barring
some truly monumental change of fortune, Biden will likely lose his very thin Democratic
majority in the House and quite a few more seats beyond that.
We rather immodestly point out that BTRTN has a very good track record at predicting House midterms gains and losses, as evidenced by the chart below. We owe it all to a very good model, which we will explain further along.
Our updates, which will become more frequent as Election Day
nears, will provide the BTRTN view on two questions: 1) if the midterms were held today, what are
the odds that the Democrats will retain the House? and 2) just how many seats
would the Democrats gain or lose? (We
will do the same for the Senate, and for the gubernatorial races as well, but
today we focus only on the House.)
Today’s answer to question #1 is, well, almost zero. Our model spit out a number that rounds up to
1% -- a 1% chance that the Democrats will retain a majority in the House. It’s that unlikely, right now.
Today’s answer to question #2 goes something like
this: while all 435 House seats are up
for reelection (as they are, of course, every two years), given the advanced state of the
fine art of gerrymandering, only 88 races have any chance at all of being truly
contested. More realistically, only 55 races, as of now, appear to be truly “in play.” Most districts have
been sculpted into ungainly salamander shapes that all but guarantee Blue or
Red status. Of those 55 in which
it remains truly possible for either party to win, the Democrats hold 42. There are three other seats that they are
almost guaranteed to lose (not included in either the 55 or the 88). So the very worst
the Democrats could do is to lose all 45 of those seats and not flip any
current GOP seats.
We at BTRTN don’t envision that kind of bloodbath, at least not at this point in time. Given the dynamics of the generic ballot and the net effect of redistricting, we think the Democrats, if the election were held today, would lose around 26 seats. Remember and note well: this is not a prediction, but rather a snapshot.
There remain nearly five months until Election Day, five
months in which it is theoretically possible for potential “catalysts” to move
the macro-electoral environment in the Democrats’ direction and forestall the
blowout. Inflation could at least begin
to recede without prompting a recession; gas prices could tumble. Vladimir Putin could throw in the towel in
Ukraine. Omicron might run out of new mutations,
with no new nasty variant worthy of its own Greek letter emerging behind it.
The baby formula supply crunch could disappear. The Senate might find its way to some version
of a Build Back Better Bill, and, in the wake of Uvalde, the Senate’s 25 years
of embarrassing inaction on gun reform might finally end (which is looking particularly
promising right now). And, the combination
of the January 6 Committee’s live hearings and final report, plus the final
version of SCOTUS Judge Joseph Alito’s Roe-reversing opinion might actually set
the Democrats on fire, galvanizing the Blue electorate to turn out as if Trump himself
were on the ballot.
Any of this could
happen. But the odds of most of them happening -- and happening in time -- to prevent the GOP House
takeover seems unlikely. More likely is
that Joe Biden’s approval rating and, more importantly, the almighty generic
ballot will continue at their current levels, with Biden holding steady in the
low 40% range, and the GOP up by +3 percentage points over the Dems. And if that happens, the final outcome will
indeed resemble where we stand today.
(And, of course, things could get even worse.)
THE BTRTN SNAPSHOT ANALYSIS
Let’s drill down on the BTRTN House snapshot at this point,
focusing on the three major variables driving our analysis (and our model).
generic ballot. The
first key variable is the generic ballot, in which voters are asked,
essentially, if they prefer Democratic or Republican representation, without
naming names (hence, “generic”). The
generic ballot is exceptionally
accurate in predicting House midterm elections, at least when embedded in a
multiple regression equation model such as our very own BTRTN model. Once upon a time, through October of 2021, the Democrats led on the
generic ballot, but that then reversed and the GOP has led since, and their
narrow margin has widened a bit in the last few months.
Note that for the Democrats to
retain the House, the generic ballot doesn’t simply have to favor the
Democrats, but, given the inherent GOP bias in the congressional map, the
Democrats actually have to lead by at least +5 points. It is a long, long way from -3 to +5 in the
remaining window before Election Day.
seats held. The second factor,
which is fixed (more or less) through the campaign cycle, is how many seats the
president’s party currently holds. This has
an enormous impact on how many seats the Democrats could lose. That’s because, essentially, the more seats a party holds, the more seats
it can lose. Barack Obama lost 63
seats in 2010, but the Democrats held a remarkable 256 at the time. Bill Clinton lost 54 seats in 1994, but they
held 254. In both those instances, Obama
and Clinton switched a lot of middle-of-the-roaders to Blue when first elected,
and many of those new-blue seats simply switched back at their first chance in the midterms. On the other hand, George H. W. Bush lost
only 8 seats in 1990 – but the GOP only held 175 at the time. The GOP at the first Bush’s midterms held so few
seats that they were down to all but a handful beyond the deepest red
districts that they could lose.
Joe Biden’s Democrats only
hold 220 House seats, plus one of the six vacancies was held by a Democrat, so
call it 221. That relatively low number
alone will put a natural cap on the Dems’ potential losses – there is simply no
way Biden can lose 63 or even 54 seats.
This variable – the number of seats the President’s party holds -- is also
embedded in our regression model.
Redistricting. In most years, those two data points are all
we would need to predict the House outcome – that is what we used to predict
those House midterm outcomes in 2010, 2014 and 2018, in which we were virtually
on the money each time. We would simply plug those two data
points – the 221 seats the Dems hold, coupled with the GOP +3 percentage point
edge in the generic ballot – into our little black box
and, voila, out comes the
answer: that the Dems would lose 22
But in 2022, we have another
factor to consider: the redistricting that has been going on based on the 2020
census, a process that is just about complete.
Many feared that given GOP control of statehouses and state
legislatures in many states, the GOP might gerrymander even more seats in their
direction. That has proven true, but not
anywhere near the order of magnitude of the worst fears. Most analyses show the GOP has, net net,
picked up about 3-5 seats by virtue of redistricting alone. Thus, to the 22 lost seats that our model
suggests the Dems will lose, we add four more for redistricting, to get to our
current estimate of 26 lost seats.
Of course individual races – the individuals the party’s
elect to represent them via the primaries – make some difference. We will be
back a number of times in the election cycle to update our House estimates,
taking the final match-ups into account.
WHY THIS IS IMPORTANT
Apart from simply keeping score, these assessments assist readers/volunteers
to make informed judgments on where to spend their time and money in the
electoral process to the best advantage.
Political donors and volunteers would do well to focus on races that are truly competitive and can be swayed with the precious resources that time and money
represent. Giving $50 to a favored congressperson who is running 80/20 over his opponent is not a good use of resource.
At some point – perhaps reasonably soon – Democratic donors and volunteers will have to decide whether the House outlook is so bleak that it will be better to focus entirely on holding the Senate, or perhaps on a few key gubernatorial races (or even state elections). The Democrats have a far better chance of holding the Senate than the House, accordingly, as they are fielding generally excellent candidates in key swings states, while the GOP, not so much. (Our Senate piece is only slightly dated and worth a read, and we will update it soon: http://www.borntorunthenumbers.com/2022/03/btrtn-midterms-part-iican-dems-hold.html.)
We will be explicit as the election season progresses with
our guidance on this “resource allocation” question.
But if you are a Democratic volunteer/donor, and decided
you simply must spend an hour or a
dollar on a race right now, our
advice is as follows – focus on three of the “Big Four” Senate races, the
ones that will likely dictate the fate of Senate control this November where
the Democratic headliner is set: Arizona
(Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly), Georgia (Democratic incumbent Ralph
Warnock), Pennsylvania (Democratic primary winner John Fetterman). (Wisconsin is the fourth, with the primary on
August 9). Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Catherine Cortez
Matso are also Democratic incumbents who are facing tough races and worthy of
The Dems need to win four of these six races (or win fewer
but flip a GOP seat or two, which is possible) to retain control of the
Senate – and if they win all six, then the Dems will get to 52, and we won’t
have to pay much attention to Joe Manchin and Kirsten Sinema anymore as the
Dems drive through filibuster reform.
Right now we would say that Warnock probably needs the most help, as he is running about even with Georgia football demigod Herschel Walker, a colorful candidate who has zero political experience, one Heisman trophy and multiple personalities.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR 2024
A midterm blowout would not be fatal to Joe Biden’s
presidency, of course. Many of his
predecessors, as noted, suffered the same fate.
Three recent presidents – Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama –
not only survived gigantic midterm blowouts, and were reelected two years
later, but each rank among the top 20 most successful presidencies ever
(according to the latest round of historian polls in 2021 – Reagan was #9,
Obama #10 and Clinton #19). All were
able to adjust, receive a run of good luck, or both. Donald Trump, on the other hand, who made no
adjustments whatsoever to his loathsome, divisive style, lost 42 seats in the
2018 midterms and lost his reelection
But there is little doubt that getting shellacked (Obama’s
term for his loss of a whopping 63
seats) is a warning shot over the bow from the American people. The midterms are a barometer of how a
presidency is being received. First-term
presidents are not destined to get
swamped in the midterms – George W. Bush picked up seats – rather they typically
earn it through unpopular actions or presiding over a dip in the economic cycle. Biden was dealt a horrific hand, and then
drew two more events over which he had no control, the Omicron strain and the
Ukraine invasion, which directly resulted in the inflation that bedevils him. But whether he deserves blame or not, his
approval rating is low, and needs to be rebuilt to at least 45% to feel
confident about reelection.
The loss of the House would mean the loss of the Democrat’s
“trifecta” – the control of the White House, Senate and House. Now, the trifecta ain’t what it used to be,
what with the ancient filibuster rules almost assuring the inability to pass
landmark legislation, and the Supreme Court firmly in conservative hands. But still, losing the House would negate the
ability for the Dems to pass legislation via reconciliation in the Senate – if
the Democrats were able to hold the Senate.
This is a good time to note that the Senate midterms are
almost a completely different animal.
While that pesky micro-environment almost always dictates House
fortunes, Senate outcomes, including the midterms, are far more driven by the
candidates themselves. The Democrats
have a far greater chance of holding on to the Senate, roughly 50/50 odds at
this point. The primary season is
underway, and we need to see what the final lineups will be, but we will return
with many Senate updates in the coming months.
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