Study: GOP likely to retain power after 2018 midterms

Because of incumbent advantage, modeling suggests that the GOP is likely to retain power in the midterms

Published October 22, 2017 8:30AM (EDT)


FairVote, a nonpartisan think tank that analyzes elections and proposes electoral reforms, has issued its new Monopoly Politics 2018 report on U.S. House elections. Using its proven model, the organization projects that Republicans are likely to maintain a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives absent an historic partisan wave in 2018.

FairVote’s model has missed only one high-confidence projection in more than a 1,000 congressional races in the 2012, 2014 and 2016 cycles. This year we have made high-confidence projections in 374 of 435 U.S. House races, including 208 sure wins for Republicans and 166 for Democrats. That means the GOP needs only to win 10 of the 61 potentially competitive seats to keep control of the chamber. Democrats would need to win 52 of them to deny them that control.

FairVote does not predict the two-party vote, as its model is based solely on election results from past elections. But its online analytic tool allows users to test the impact of different election years. Assuming incumbents have a similar advantage to what they’ve had in recent years, it would take a national Democratic advantage of 55.5 percent to 44.5 percent for Democrats to earn a one-seat majority. In a dead-even year, Republicans would likely win 56 percent of seats, more than they have today.

The report underscores how challenging House elections are for Democrats, but also just how entrenched the impediments are to truly representative democracy in Congress. When FairVote launched in 1992, Democrats were nearing the end of a 40-year run of the House. Now the partisan tables have turned, but the underlying reasons for change remain the same: entrenched incumbents, lack of accountability, disaffected voters and broken policymaking.

Among the report’s finding that explain the Republican advantages for the 2018 cycle:

  • The partisan landscape favors Republicans: Due to a combination of residential sorting and their control of redistricting in key states, Republicans have a key advantage in the underlying partisan makeup of the districts. Even though Donald Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, he had a 230-205 edge in number of congressional districts won. If all seats were open in a nationally even election in 2018, Republicans would be favored to end up with a 237-198 (54.5 percent-45.5 percent) edge in the House.
  • Incumbent advantages: Because Republicans hold more seats, by definition they have more incumbents. Incumbents in 2016 saw a slight increase in their advantage from the last cycle even with the strong anti-establishment sentiment among the electorate. That led to a re-election rate of 98 percent, an average increase in their winning margin by nearly 7 percentage points, and 218 Republicans (a majority of the House) winning their seats by more than 12 percentage points in a year when the national party preference was only 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent for Republicans. That means the electorate was almost evenly divided over whether they preferred a Democratic or Republican congressional majority.
  • Few chances in open seats: Of 31 open House seats so far for the 2018 cycle (including the two seats that will be filled by special election), 21 seats are currently held by Republicans. But those open seats create few opportunities for Democrats. We project 25 of them, with the partisan balance of those 25 remaining exactly the same as it is now. Democrats are favored to win only one Republican-held seat and have a realistic chance in just three others. Republicans are also favored to win a Democratic-held seat and to challenge two more -- a total of five of the open seats cannot be projected, and four of them tilt Republican to some degree.
  • Few Republicans representing clearly Democratic territory: Few incumbents of either party are in vulnerable positions. While there was an uptick in districts that favor one party being represented by a member of the opposite party to a total of 33 seats out of 435, it may not create that many new partisan targets. For example, 21 Republicans are running in districts won by Hillary Clinton. However, Barack Obama carried only seven of them in 2012. Democrats also have to play defense; of the 12 Democrats seeking re-election in districts won by Donald Trump, three were won by Trump by more than 10 percentage points. This is a far cry from 2010, when Republicans could take over the House with gains almost exclusively from districts leaning toward the GOP.

Can Democrats overcome these disadvantages? Certainly -- but doing so will likely require earning a higher share of the two-party vote that any party has earned in House races in decades, likely on the order of a popular vote margin in congressional races of 55 percent to 45 percent.

FairVote’s overall focus in the report is on the problem of incumbent entrenchment in our modern climate of fierce partisan division. Even as Democrats fell far short of taking the House in 2016, their incumbents did just fine, with only two losses in November -- Mike Honda to fellow Democrat Ro Khanna in California’s Top Two system, and Nebraska’s Brad Ashford as the only Democratic incumbent to lose to a Republican. Although the Democratic caucus is collectively disadvantaged by the current system, it provides individual Democrats with excellent job security.

As the findings of FairVote’s Monopoly Politics report indicate, the system is coping with intense turmoil and division, prompting the organization to also release a new report that simulates the impact of the Fair Representation Act, H.R. 3057. Sponsored by Rep. Don Beyer, the bill seeks to open up our troubled electoral system, mend the nation’s partisan divisions and create incentives to encourage more collaborative, forward-looking governance.

Based on combining ranked choice voting with larger districts that elect more than one person and are drawn by independent redistricting commissions, the Fair Representation Act would have a remarkable impact. A simulation of the plan in all 50 states shows that it would likely:

  • Result in shared representation by both major parties in every district, including Republicans in Manhattan and Democrats in the Texas panhandle.
  • Create a large increase in opportunities for women and people of color to win seats.
  • Remove the spoiler impact of third parties and independents, thereby creating opportunities for them to offer new ideas and hold the major parties accountable.
  • Remove the partisan skew, with the party winning the most votes likely to win the most seats and each party likely to earn a comparable number of seats when earning comparable proportions of votes.

With an electoral system in dire need of reform, the Fair Representation Act provides a change that is needed, transformative -- and within reach.


By Rich Robinson

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By Rob Richie

Rob Richie is the president and CEO of FairVote

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