Republican congressional candidates received more than a million fewer votes nationally than Democrats last November and the House GOP’s approval rating – according to its own pollster – stands at just 27 percent, 19 points lower than the Democratic total.
This has created an uneasy backdrop for this week’s House GOP retreat in Williamsburg, Va., where Republican lawmakers have gathered to assess the fallout from the '12 election and the recent fiscal cliff skirmish and to plot strategy for the 113th Congress. Fears from at least a few Republicans that the party could lose the chamber in the 2014 midterm elections are leaking into the media.
Adding to these worries is the prospect for further brand damage in the weeks and months ahead, with fights over the debt ceiling, sequestration and the continuing resolution that funds the government all looming. There is a strong consensus on the right to use at least one of these deadlines to make a stand for deep cuts to social safety net programs – Medicare, Social Security, maybe Medicaid too – without giving any further ground on revenue. The prospects of Obama and Democrats agreeing to anything like this are dim, and the GOP figures to pay a disproportionate public relations price if no agreement is reached.
If the GOP’s doomsday scenario – loss of the House in ’14 – were to be realized, it would be an earth-shattering development in Washington. With the Democrats’ 55-45 Senate majority seemingly safe heading into ’14, it would hand President Obama and his party complete control of the government, giving them two years to pursue the sort of expansive agenda that defined the first half of his first term – and that’s largely been stymied since Republicans won the House in the 2010 midterms. Democratic agenda items that have been on hold since the end of 2010 – climate change, anyone? – would again take center stage and the 114th Congress would have the potential to rival the 111th in terms of lasting, consequential output.
This might, then, be a good place to point out how unlikely this scenario is, no matter how unpopular the GOP brand is right now. It is essentially unprecedented for an incumbent president’s party to win back complete legislative control in a “six-year itch” election; gains of any sort for the White House party, in fact, are rare. It took a wildly unpopular impeachment drive by Republicans to allow Democrats to defy history in 1998, posting a net gain of five House seats in an election that then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich initially forecasted would produce a 40-seat GOP pickup. That ’98 election made Bill Clinton the first president since James Monroe in 1822 to see his party gain seats in his second-term midterm.
The math heading into the ’98 midterms was similar to what we’ll see next year. Republicans controlled the House 228-206 back then, with one independent (Vermont’s Bernie Sanders); after the election, the spread stood at 223-211-1. Today, Republicans own a 233-200 advantage, with one vacancy in a strongly Democratic district and another in a strongly Republican one. Democrats will probably need a net gain of 17 seats to gain a majority. And if an impeachment backlash could only produce a five-seat pickup in ’98, well, you can see how tall the Democrats’ order is.
The main reason it’s so hard for the White House party to make gains in midterm elections is the composition of the electorate. As we saw in 2010, the opposition party’s voters tend to be extra-motivated to turn out, while the president’s party shows signs of apathy. There may also be a tendency on the part of swing voters to use the opposition party as a protest vehicle, to take out whatever frustrations they might have on the White House party.
But Republicans will have some added advantages in ’14 too. One involves gerrymandering, favorable maps in big states drawn up by Republican state legislatures and signed by Republican governors elected in the GOP tide of ’10. But the impact of gerrymandering can be overstated.
The GOP’s real silver bullet, as David Wasserman explained in a National Journal piece last month, is that the Democratic coalition of young, college-educated and nonwhite voters is more packed into metropolitan areas than ever before. As Wasserman noted, Obama just won reelection by nearly 5 million votes – and yet he won more than 100 fewer counties nationwide than Michael Dukakis did in 1988. With so many Democratic votes concentrated in so few districts, that leaves huge swaths of the country for Republicans to dominate at the House level. Republicans, as Wasserman wrote, “have … drawn themselves into an alternate universe of voters that little resembles the growing diversity of the country.”
The GOP does not have a lock on the House. In a wave election year, Republicans could conceivably lose their majority. But no matter how self-destructive the House GOP’s behavior now is, the ingredients for a Democratic wave election probably won’t be in place next year, not with a Democrat in the White House. Which means the rest of the Obama presidency won’t be as ambitious as his supporters would prefer. With Republicans running the House, Obama and his team will spend much of their energy defending his first-term gains, fighting back GOP-led efforts to erode the social safety net and play chicken with various fiscal deadlines, and work out imperfect compromises where possible (like on immigration).
Obama’s second term can also serve another important function, with Democrats spending the next four years deciding what issues should be their top priorities the next time they attain full control of the government – something that could happen sooner than you a think. After all, if Democrats can make modest gains in next year’s midterms and if the economy is strong in ’16, the country just might be in the mood to hand some real power back to them.