Midterms 2018: The Race for the House

October 18, 2018


Just under two years on from his stunning election victory over Hillary Clinton, President Donald Trump faces the electoral test that all presidents dread. On 6th November, voters across the United States will cast their ballots in the midterm elections. 39 state and territorial governorships are up for election, alongside numerous state legislatures and local contests. The largest two contests, however, are the races for control of the House of Representatives and Senate. The House of Representatives has been under the control of the Republicans (GOP) since 2010 whilst the Senate has been in GOP hands since 2014. This time round, there is a fairly good chance that the Democrats could seize control of the House whilst the GOP are favoured to hold onto their majority in the Senate. This article will take a look at the race for control of the House of Representatives.


Since the end of the Second World War, the general rule has been that the party of the president has gone on to suffer a loss of congressional representation at midterm elections, particularly in the House of Representatives. The only two exceptions to this have been Bill Clinton’s second midterm election in 1998, where the Democrats picked up a small number of house seats, and George W. Bush’s first in 2002, where the GOP made gains. It must be stressed that these two occasions were the exception rather than the rule, George W. Bush had a very high approval rating going into the 2002 elections following the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and there was a backlash against the Republicans for their consistent attacks on Bill Clinton’s morality following the Lewinsky scandal in the run up to the 1998 elections. On average, the presidential party has lost 19 seats in the house at midterm elections whilst the non-presidential party has made gains.


The game changes when the sitting president has had a low approval rating and in these circumstances, the possibility of a ‘wave election’ comes into play. According to Nate Silver’s 538.com, President Trump currently holds an approval rating of around 42 percent. In context, this is lower than every other president at this point in their term in the post-war era apart from Harry S. Truman in 1946 and Ronald Reagan in 1982. Other presidents with approval figures similar to Trump, in the mid-to-low-40s have lost in the region of 50 house seats. Again, there have been exceptions to this, with Ronald Reagan losing 26 seats in 1982 and Jimmy Carter losing just 15 in 1978. Reagan’s more minimal losses came off the back of a relatively poor showing for the Republicans in 1980 and Carter’s approval rating was creeping towards 50 percent in the run up to the 1978 midterms.


Following Watergate and his pardon of President Nixon, Gerald Ford lost 49 seats at the 1972 midterms, Bill Clinton, with a 44.9 percent approval rating lost 54 seats and control of the house in 1994. Barak Obama set the modern day record in 2010, with a 45.6 percent approval rating, the Democrats went down on the wrong side of a ‘red wave’ and lost 64 seats to the GOP, taking the Democratic seat total to its lowest figure since 1928 (a figure that Obama would surpass in 2014). Conversely, presidents with higher approval ratings have managed to limit their midterm losses; in 1962 John F. Kennedy lost just four house seats, whilst George H. W. Bush lost just eight in 1990. In both cases, the presidents had approval ratings above 55-percent. Again, there have been cases of presidents with higher approval ratings suffering heavy losses in the house; Lyndon B. Johnson had an approval rating of over 65 percent in 1966 but his Democrats still lost 47 house seats in that year’s election. So, whilst Donald Trump’s approval rating points to heavy losses for the GOP, possibly of the ‘wave’ variety, there have been exceptions in the past and it only provides a rough guide of what is going to happen on 6th November.


Another area that has an effect on the opposition’s chances on making big gains are the number of incumbent representatives that are standing down. Generally speaking, it is more difficult for the opposition to unseat an incumbent representative than it is in an open race. This time round, 37 GOP members are standing down or running for another office, compared to just 18 Democrats. This gives the Democrats an edge on incumbency and given the close nature of the race for control, this could be enough to tip the balance. The most high profile of the GOP retirements must surely be Paul Ryan, the current Speaker of the House and running mate of Mitt Romney on the GOP ticket in 2012. He has represented Wisconsin’s 1st District since 1999 and Democrats were allegedly pouring resources into unseating him. With the race now open, the Democrats may well fancy their chances. The number of GOP retirements is the highest number of retirements for a single party since 1996. Whilst a high number of retirements does not necessarily signal a wave election, it could certainly help the Democrats if this year turns out to be a particularly close race.


As things currently stand, 538.com’s average of the generic congressional ballot is showing a Democratic lead to the order of eight-points. Although the national vote bears only a limited correlation to the number of districts that a party wins, it has been generally accepted that if the Democrats are five or more points ahead, they will win overall control. If their lead is less than five-points, then the GOP could hold their overall majority despite losing the popular vote. If the GOP wins the popular vote, something not considered likely at the moment, then they are almost certain to hold control. The fact that the Democrats could be four or five-points ahead nationally yet still finish behind the GOP in seats is symptomatic of redistricting in several states which has given the GOP an inbuilt advantage in recent elections. In North Carolina, for example, the map that is being fought on 6th November was deemed unconstitutional by a panel of federal judges as it was drawn by the GOP controlled state legislature to give the party an unfair partisan advantage. The same judges then ruled that there was not sufficient time to redraw the districts prior to election and as a result, they are to be used anyway. As a result, the Democrats must win big nationally and focus heavily on key races in order to win control.


The Democrats must win 24 districts from the GOP to nudge past the 218 seats they require for an overall majority. There are 25 districts currently represented by a Republican where Hillary Clinton won in 2016, if the Democrats can make headway here, then they will be in good stead to win an overall majority. Currently, 538.com’s forecast makes good reading for Democrats, with the party ranked as ahead in well over 200 races. Of course, things won’t go this perfectly for the Democrats in real life, but if they were to take every district in which 538.com gives them a lead (however small), then they will win around 216 seats; well ahead of the GOP who would win around 199. This would leave the Democrats needing to take around two of the tossup districts in order to win an overall majority. For the GOP to hold control, they would need to take the lion’s share of the tossups and win at least 19 seats in that category to scrape home.


To conclude, things aren’t looking too good for the GOP with just over three weeks to go until polling day. For the Democrats, the situation is reversed and they are almost certainly in their best position for a long time in their quest to take back control of the House. This will be crucial if they are intending to win the electoral college in 2020 if they want to have control of both the executive and legislature, especially as it is considerably more difficult to flip the House during a presidential year. Nonetheless, there are factors in play that could benefit either of the parties and although things currently appear to be in the Democrats’ favour, a week is a long time in politics and anything could happen between now and 6th November that could blow the race wide open and give the GOP some much needed hope.

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