Democrats’ uphill House climb isn’t as steep as we thought

Posted at 6:15 AM, Sep 01, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-01 21:10:15-04

First things first: The theme song of the week is Hill Street Blues by Mike Post from the television show “Hill Street Blues.”

Poll of the week: A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows 50% of voters prefer November’s election to result in a Democratic-controlled Congress compared with 42% of voters who prefer a Republican-controlled Congress.

This result is in-line with other polls from NBC News/Wall Street Journal and from other generic ballot polls more generally.

What’s the point: The big question for the generic ballot is what exactly does it mean?

At the most basic level, the generic ballot can be seen as an estimation of the House popular vote. Given where the generic ballot average is at this point (an 8-point Democratic advantage), there is roughly an 6 to 8 point margin of error in predicting the final vote. In other words, Democrats end up winning by double digits or roughly tied with Republicans. That’s far from perfect, though is actually more predictive than an average for a Senate race would be at this point.

Importantly, the generic ballot is one of a number of tools that can be used to figure out how many seats each party will win in the House. On this measure Democrats have picked up ground since the beginning of the year.

For a slew of reasons (gerrymandering, Democratic voters packing themselves into cities and the incumbency advantage), we’ve known for a while that Democrats would need to win a lot more votes than Republicans to take a majority of seats in the House.

The exact margin though is likely to be smaller than we thought it would be at the beginning of the cycle. It may be closer to 6 points than 8 points. And while 6 is still significantly greater than 0, it’s much more doable than 8.

With a few exceptions, Democrats have consistently held a lead in the area of 8 points on the generic ballot all year long. If Democrats needed to win the national House vote by 8 points in order to take back the chamber, they would be no more than a 50-50 proposition to do so.

Instead, Democrats are now a moderate favorite to win the House given the generic ballot.

So what has made the Democrats’ job easier?

First, the Republican incumbency advantage has shrunk because so many GOP representatives have retired. Around 40 Republicans decided not to seek re-election. That’s the highest number for the Republicans in the last three decades. It’s a significantly greater share than the number of Democrats who decided to hang it up this year.

The retirements are important because, controlling for everything else, incumbents tend to get a larger share of the vote than a party’s nominee would be expected to get if the incumbent wasn’t running. Although the advantage has shrunk over time, it’s still in the area of 5 percentage points. In close races, that can make all the difference in the world.

Second, the Democrats caught a fairly big break when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided to redraw the state’s congressional maps. The map wasn’t the “game changer” that some perhaps thought it was. Still, it shifted at least two seats into the Democratic column that otherwise most likely would have been won by the Republicans. When translating the national House vote into seats won, two seats is worth at least half a point. Further, the map changes in Pennsylvania caused at least one Republican to retire who might otherwise have not, which in turn limited the Republican incumbency advantage nationally.

Finally, Democrats have been outraising Republicans like crazy. There were 56 challenger Democrats last quarter who outraised the Republican incumbents they are taking on in the fall. That’s actually greater than the number of challengers who outraised incumbents in the wave cycle of 2010.

Money matters for a few reasons. On the most basic level, it can be used for advertisements to build up name recognition. (Some of the incumbency advantage is simply being better known than your opponent.) Money also is an indication of candidate quality. When a candidate can raise money, it can be an indication of the work ethic necessary to win a House campaign. Moreover, voters tend to give money to those candidates who they think have a chance of winning.

And right now, the money going to key House campaigns could help tighten the close races. That will in turn help lower the margin by which Democrats need to win nationally just a little bit. In the battle for the house, that may be all Democrats need.