Monday Apr. 18, 2016

The Roadmap to a New Democratic House Majority

Earlier this year, the NCEC went on the record with an initial projection of a Democratic pickup of 12 to 15 seats this November. With more than six months left before the election, this remains the most likely outcome and many analysts are wondering what a Democratic wave would look like. Below, we discuss some of the factors that could lead to such a wave and look at the districts that could be won in such a scenario.

For a Democratic wave to materialize, external factors must contribute to the general political environment. Donald Trump, despite losing Wisconsin, remains the presumptive Republican nominee at this time. In every hypothetical general election matchup between Trump and the eventual Democratic nominee, the Democrat leads by a substantial margin. Also, Trump's primary election lead over Ted Cruz appears more tenuous than it did a month ago. While Cruz is performing better in recent polls, the polarizing strategy of his campaign creates the same issues that are likely to derail Trump in November. Neither candidate solves the GOP's down-ballot problems.

How does this impact the House races?

In the last two midterm elections, Democrats lost 77 House seats. But in the last two presidential elections, Democrats gained 29 seats (an average of 14.5 per presidential cycle). This significant disparity is driven by a presidential-year electorate that is far more diverse and far younger—strong constituencies for Democrats in recent years. Almost 32 million more voters cast major party House ballots in 2012 than they did in 2014. Moreover, the anemic turnout in 2014 was 8.6 million fewer voters than the 2010 turnout level (which was, itself, low by historical standards). Trump's anti-immigration and anti-women rhetoric has given way to unprecedented negatives within the Latino and women's voting groups and is likely to marginalize his general election prospects. The 2016 electorate promises to be 30 percent non-white and 52 to 53 percent female. In 2012, Barack Obama was reelected with less than 40 percent of the white vote and 35 percent of the white male vote—a mathematical problem for Republicans that is likely to be exacerbated by Trump or Cruz in November.

Republican gains in the last two midterm elections have left them overextended and obliged to defend seats in traditionally Democratic districts. The sheer size of their majority almost guarantees a Democratic pick-up of at least a handful of seats. Additionally, a Trump or Cruz candidacy will create openings in districts with higher education levels, significant numbers of suburban voters, and greater concentrations of Latino, Asian and African American voters. These are the fundamentals that favor a Democratic wave but certainly don't guarantee one.

While the positives for Democrats are many, we acknowledge that the congressional map favors Republicans following the 2010 redistricting cycle. In fact, Democrats won approximately 4 percent fewer seats than votes in both 2012 and 2014. If the vote-to-seat differential mirrors 2012, when Democrats narrowly outpaced Republicans in the national congressional vote, Democrats can be expected to win 204 seats—a 16 seat gain. If the Democratic share of the vote approaches 53 to 54 percent, the 30-seat gain required to win the House would be in reach.

But let's assume that such a wave exists; where would the Democrats look to capture the 30 net seats necessary to recapture the House? For this scenario, let's assume that the Democrats hold their handful of marginal open-seats, as well as the handful of marginal incumbents, and lose only Florida's 2nd—an almost certain outcome due to redistricting.

The table below details potential districts that, if flipped, could produce a new Democratic majority. We have identified 45 potentially marginal districts, which, under optimal circumstances, could produce a new Democratic majority. This table does not include marginal Democratic seats, assuming a 100% retention rate with the exception of Florida's 2nd.

US House Judgments

Factor District Other Information Likely Net Gain
Redistricting FL-10 2
Republican held majority Democratic districts IA-01 2
IL-10 High education Cook County suburbs
NV-04 High percentage of non-white voters.
Republican Held Open-seats MN-02 Minneapolis suburbs and exurbs. 3 to 5
NV-03 Las Vegas suburbs with substantial non-white population.
NY-19 Suburban and rural district in the New York City media market.
NY-22 Virtual dead heat in 2012 and is represented by a moderate Republican.
PA-08 High education and income Philadelphia suburb.
Second-tier Marginal Republican Incumbents AZ-02 suburban Phoenix – 50-50 race in last 2 elections. 5 to 8
CO-06 suburban and exurban Denver.
FL-07 significant boundary changes from redistricting revisions.
FL-26 Hispanic population growing at rapid rate.
IA-03 Des Moines urban and suburban areas.
NH-01 Manchester based suburban district, includes Boston suburbs.
NY-01 Long Island district long represented by Democratic incumbent.
NY-24 Syracuse and suburbs—Obama won by 16 percent in 2012.
TX-23 Heavy concentration  of Latino voters, won in 2012 and lost in low turnout 2014.
Districts Won by President Obama With Emerging Hispanic Constituencies CA-10 Unknown
Obama won 49 percent of this district in 2012 and 51 percent in 2008 CA-25 Unknown
Open Seats With a Republican Majority but Historically Competitive FL-06 Unknown
Winnable Districts Lacking a Top-tier Recruit NJ-02 Unknown
Republican Incumbents in Upscale Demographic Districts Subject to Trump Implosion KS-03 Unknown
Third-tier Open Seat, Promising Demographic Changes PA-16 Unknown
Strong Democratic Challengers in Republican Districts With a Close House Result in 2012 or 2014 NY-23 Unknown

The above table shows that in an advantageous political environment, there is no shortage of target districts, but anti-Republican sentiment will need to solidify to a greater extent for a Democratic wave to become a reality.

2016 Election Polling

The most recent generic congressional ballot polling further makes this point. The latest samples show the race essentially tied:

Pollster Date Sample Margin of Error Republican Democrat Spread
PPP (D) 3/24/16 – 3/26/16 1083 RV 3.0 43 43 Tie
PPP (D) 2/2/16 – 2/3/16 1236 RV 2.8 41 47 Democrats +6
PPP (D) 12/16/15 – 12/17/15 1267 RV 2.8 43 43 Tie

2006 Election Polling

By contrast, in 2006, when a Democratic wave captured both chambers of Congress, the Democrats were consistently ahead by double-digits:

Pollster Date Sample Republican Democrat Spread
Rasmussen 4/29/06 – 4/30/06 -- 36 46 Democrats +10
USA Today/Gallup 4/28/06 – 4/30/06 -- 39 54 Democrats +15
Cook/RT Strategies 4/27/06 – 4/30/06 -- 32 44 Democrats +12
CNN 4/21/06 – 4/23/06 -- 40 50 Democrats +10
Pew Research 4/7/06 – 4/16/06 -- 41 51 Democrats +10

Taking all these factors into consideration, the most likely outcome in the House remains a Democratic pickup of 12 to 15 seats, but should the presidential race continue to drag down Republican prospects, a Democratic wave remains at least within the realm of possibility.

Update Apr. 19, 2016: The "US House Judgments" table listed Minnesota's 2nd Congressional district twice (correctly as a "Republican Held Open-seat" and incorrectly as a "Republican Incumbent ... Subject to Trump Implosion"). The second occurrence should read MN-03 (not MN-02) and the update reflects this correction.