Democrats

Can Republicans Hold the House?


- August 29th, 2018
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Some sophisticated polling analysts say an electoral “blue wave” is going to sweep Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) back into the speakership of the House of Representatives and consign the Republicans to minority status in the chamber they have run for the past eight years. Certainly, Republicans would be foolish to ignore the polling data informing such predictions. Nevertheless, we know from experience—most spectacularly from the 2016 presidential election—that such data can be misleading.

A more general survey of the political landscape suggests the Republicans have at least a sporting chance to hold the House. It is a reasonable bet that the Republicans will win a majority of House seats if they can win a majority of the national popular votes in this fall’s House elections. After all, the party that wins more votes nationally ordinarily wins control of the House. (There are exceptions to this rule, but in recent decades those exceptions have actually favored the Republicans, who have twice won the House without winning the national popular vote.)

Can the Republicans compete to win the popular vote in the 2018 House elections? One obvious way to gain some perspective on this question is to look at the recent history of mid-term elections.

In 2006, a year of total Republican collapse, House GOP candidates won about 36 million votes nationally, while the resurgent Democrats won more than 42 million. In the last two midterm elections, however, the situation was reversed. In 2010, House Republicans won nearly 45 million votes, while the Democrats got about 39 million. In 2014, House Republicans won about 40 million votes, while the Democrats earned around 35.6 million.

A Tie in the Works?
Let’s assume Democratic voters, energized by their enthusiastic hatred for President Trump, will turn out in large numbers this fall to support their congressional candidates. Perhaps the party can even match its 2006 midterm election record of 42 million votes. But for that to result in a sweeping loss of Republican seats, the GOP’s popular vote total would have to decline markedly, if not all the way back to the 2006 level of a mere 36 million votes.

What if, instead, House Republicans are able to reach the average of their last two popular vote performances?

That would be about 42 million votes, leaving the national vote close to a tie.

There are reasons to think that scenario is more likely. It is generally agreed that the voters who fueled Republican House majorities in 2010 and 2014 sought a more spirited opposition to the Obama-style liberalism of the contemporary Democratic Party. This disposition seems to have staying power. How else could Donald Trump and Ted Cruz end up as the leading candidates for the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2016, leaving less combative candidates—even highly credentialed ones, like Jeb Bush and John Kasich—in the dust?

Moreover, this disposition seems to extend beyond the hard core base of Republican voters. In 2016, Trump won more votes than Mitt Romney had in 2012; and House Republicans, even with Trump at the top of the ticket, won more votes than their House Democratic competitors.

Let’s also assume that many of these Republican voters will turn out this fall because they have no serious cause of dissatisfaction with their party. On the contrary: they wanted a fight, and they’ve got it. As president, Trump has set about dismantling Barack Obama’s political legacy; and House Republicans have supported him for the most part. In short, Republican voters likely will flock to the political battlefield with as much enthusiasm as their Democratic counterparts. And if that happens, Republicans have a good chance to retain control of the House.

The Caveat
Of course, this analysis, focused as it is on partisan Republican and Democratic voters, leaves out another important, and often decisive, faction in American politics: voters with weak party affiliation who sometimes cast their votes for Republicans and sometimes for Democrats. Certainly they were important to the Republican losses of 2006 and the Republican victories of 2010 and 2014. Will they, in 2018, vote to punish the Republican Party and turn the House of Representatives over to the Democrats?

This is what many Democrats, and many left-leaning political analysts, believe will happen. They think the House Democrats will be carried to victory by ordinary voters who are recoiling from the radical defects of Republican governance in the age of Trump. Such claims, however, should be met with skepticism.

Defending the Washington Administration against its Jeffersonian critics, Alexander Hamilton observed: “The natural consequence of radical defect in a government or in its administration is national distress and suffering—look around you—Where is it? Do you feel it? Do you see it?”

Today, despite the hysteria with which Democrats denounce the president, there is no national distress and suffering such as turned centrist voters against the GOP in 2006 and 2008. On the contrary, the country is doing well: the economy is growing, employment is rising. Conditions do not portend a revolt either of the Republican base or of independent voters. Therefore, the Republicans have a good chance to hold the House.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the policies or positions of any other person or entity.  Titles and names of organizations are included for identification purposes only.

Photo Credit: Joe Skipper/Getty Images

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