All the pundits are wrong

Conventional wisdom says the GOP has a grip on the House, but can't win the White House. Here's why both are wrong

Published August 3, 2013 10:30AM (EDT)

There’s a new, two-part conventional wisdom going around: Democrats have a White House lock, while Republicans are sure to keep their majority in the House of Representatives until at least the next census and redistricting. Ignore it.

It’s certainly possible that the status quo will prevail in both the House and the Oval Office … and in 2014, in particular, it’s highly unlikely that Nancy Pelosi will win the speakership back.

But the idea that Democrats are locked out of the House until 2022 at the earliest is silly. And the idea that demographics and a poor image prevent Republicans from winning the presidency under current conditions is even sillier.

Indeed, it reminds me very much of the political climate in 1989-1990, when “everyone” was convinced that Republicans had an Electoral College lock on the presidency and that Democrats would never lose the House. That lasted all the way until the next recession, which elected Bill Clinton, and in turn produced the Republican landslide of 1994. So much for sure things – and odds are, the same is true this time.

I’ll start with the House. It is true that Republicans right now have a built-in advantage in House elections. It’s built on two things: The way people cluster into districts seems to produce more (somewhat) Republican districts and fewer (more solidly) Democratic districts. There’s some dispute about it, but generally analysts find that this advantage derives from natural distribution, not from deliberate gerrymandering. It’s also built on an old reliable in House elections, the incumbent advantage – an edge that helped Democrats keep their forever majority from the 1950s until that 1994 election. So the advantage is real.

But we don’t know how long the districting advantage will last. Americans move around a lot! It’s not at all unusual for very effective gerrymanders to come undone only a few years down the road, as people move around and, in some cases, groups shift their partisanship.

And it’s not insurmountable. It’s probably only marginally bigger than the GOP’s built in advantage ten years ago… and that ended abruptly, and decisively, in 2006.

It’s not likely at all to end in 2014, because the president’s party almost always loses seats in midterms, and especially in second-term midterms. Even a surge in Barack Obama’s popularity to Clinton-1998 levels probably wouldn’t be enough to do it. But it’s not far-fetched to imagine a relatively good year for Democrats in 2014, breaking even or losing a handful of seats, followed by a Democratic presidential landslide in 2016. Or, even more plausibly: Republicans reclaim the White House in 2016, but prove as unable to govern as they were the last time they tried, yielding a Democratic landslide in 2018. Indeed, it’s not hard at all to imagine a relatively weak economy producing a GOP sweep in 2016, a Republican imposition of strict austerity in 2017, and the economic collapse that goes with austerity soon afterward.

In other words: Yes, Republicans have an advantage in the House. But we’ve seen House elections in both directions that featured swings large enough to overwhelm that advantage. And remember: If Democrats did reclaim that chamber, the incumbency advantage would once against flip to supporting them.

Ah, but you may have noticed that part of my argument there would require a Republican in the White House, and a lot of people are convinced that demographics have banished that possibility.

It just isn’t true. Yes, Democrats have won (counting Al Gore) five of the last six national votes. But each of these is most easily explained by the underlying fundamentals – how the economy was doing, how popular the president was, unpopular wars, and other such factors. Models of presidential elections that assume underlying even strength appear to work just as well now as they did 20 or 30 years ago. Indeed, those models also worked during the 1968-1988 stretch when Republicans were winning regularly. I don’t want to say that it’s a complete coincidence that has nothing to do with the strength of the parties; I do think that both Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush wound up as unpopular presidents in part because their parties were ill equipped to govern at the time. But, yes, overall, there’s a lot here that’s just luck of the draw.

What of changing demographics? There’s no guarantee that the “rising” coalition that put Obama into office will continue voting, or continue voting Democratic; even if they do, there’s no guarantee at all that their little brothers and sisters will do so. Yes, it is possible that Republicans could manage to solidify Latino voters against them, but that’s not the only potential outcome. An ill-timed recession could convince a lot of groups that seem solidly Democratic now that it’s time to reconsider their choices – or, to be more precise, it might affect some of the more loosely partisan members of those groups.

One more thing: It does seem vaguely possible that the Electoral College has a slight Democratic tilt these days, but if so it’s only 2 or 3 points. And it’s not clear that tilt, if it exists, will last.

All in all, I would still assume that, all else equal and before considering election-specific fundamentals such as the economy, presidential elections are toss-ups. But even if you assume that Democrats now have a structural advantage that makes them, say, 60/40 – an advantage that just doesn’t show up in the numbers – it would still be more likely than not for Republicans to win every third election.

I’m pretty confident that Republicans will retain the House in 2014. They probably have better than even chances of holding it in 2016, too – no lock, but advantage. But after that? I have no idea – and I have no idea who will win the White House in 2016, let alone 2020 and beyond. What I do know is that long-term electoral locks in U.S. politics are rare. We’re not likely to have one now.

By Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein writes at a Plain Blog About Politics. Follow him at @jbplainblog

MORE FROM Jonathan Bernstein