There’s starting to be some speculation that Republicans might recapture a majority in the House in 2010. That would require them to gain 40 seats—the exact number they needed to gain in 1994, the last time they recaptured a majority from the Democrats. Interestingly, I don’t recall anyone predicting the Republicans would win a majority, much less gain the 52 seats they actually did that year, until July 1994, when I wrote an article in U.S. News & World Report suggesting there was a serious possibility they would do so. One reason the commentariat was so late in making such a prediction was that almost no one had been around the last time the Republicans won a majority of House seats, in 1952. In contrast, today’s commentariat remembers that there was a Republican majority in the House just three years ago.
One reason it’s hard to predict who will win which party will win a majority of House seats is that it’s impossible, or at least impracticable, for national pollsters to ask respondents in each of the 435 congressional districts which of the two major party candidates they’ll vote for. Challengers are typically little known even in the weeks just before the election, much less 14 months before—when most challengers haven’t even been picked and many haven’t started running. So pollsters ask the generic ballot question—which party’s candidate will you vote for in the election for House of Representatives. Currently Real Clear Politics reports that Democrats lead Republicans by only 41%-39% in the generic ballot. But there’s a clear difference between the results shown by pollster Scott Rasmussen, who limits his surveys to those he determines to be likely voters, and other pollsters. Rasmussen currently shows Republicans leading 42%-38% and has had them ahead every week since the results he reported June 28—just about the time the House was passing the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill by a 219-212 margin. Other pollsters during the same period have, on average, shown Democrats ahead 44%-39%, with Democrats leading in nine of ten such polls and Republicans ahead by just 1% in the other.
Now comes political scientist Andrew Gelman, on the 538.com blog run by the Obama enthusiast and gifted numbers cruncher Nate Silver, saying that the generic polls suggest that Republicans could recapture a House majority in 2010. I have noticed that over the years generic vote questions have tended to understate the ultimate Republican percentage of the popular vote for the House; Gelman says his research indicates “the out-party consistently outperforms the generic polls.” Gelman says that in current generic polls Democrats get 52% of the two-party vote, comparable to what they got in 1946, 1994 and 1998—all years in which Republicans got more popular votes and won more House seats than Democrats.
Wisely, Gelman notes it’s still early; opinion which has shifted away from the Democrats during the first eight months of the Obama term could shift the other way in the next 14 months. He also notes, again I think wisely, “the general unpopularity of the Republicans.” But I think there’s less to his third caveat, that “it will be year 2 of the presidential term, not year 6 which is historically the really bad year for the incumbent party.” Historically, yes, but not in recent times. Ronald Reagan’s Republicans and Bill Clinton’s Democrats lost more seats in year 2 than in year 6; only George W. Bush of the presidents of the last 30 years saw his party do worse in year 6 than year 2. Reagan’s Republicans suffered from recession and high unemployment; Clinton’s Democrats suffered from liberal overreach. Both factors could—not necessarily will, but could—work against Barack Obama’s Democrats next year.
Having said all that, I think the chances of the Republicans recapturing the House have to be rated now at well below 50%. But I think they’re not as negligible as I thought even a few weeks ago.