Democrats may have held on to the White House and romped in the Senate, but they fell well short of taking back the House of Representatives on Tuesday — a goal they’d set out for themselves from the moment they lost it in a 2010 landslide.
In the end, it wasn’t even close: networks declared early Tuesday night that Republicans would keep their House majority. Some results are not yet final, but even if Democrats gain some seats they’ll fall far short of the 25 they needed to retake the chamber.
How’d that happen? After all, the GOP won a huge number of seats in the historic midterm elections two years ago, suggesting the partisan pendulum should have been poised to swing back toward the Democrats in a substantial way. And from the moment Republicans swarmed Capitol Hill in January 2011, they embarked on a kamikaze quest to thwart President Obama’s agenda, and threw their weight behind an unpopular plan to privatize Medicare — a plan that became central to Democratic efforts to wrest back control of the House. As a consequence, congressional approval ratings plummeted below 10 percent.
Why wasn’t this a recipe for a Democratic rebound?
Experts attribute the GOP’s comfortable victory to the timing of the 2010 tea party wave, which gave Republicans huge redistricting advantages that let them alter the congressional map to their benefit.
“Much of this was pre-baked through the redistricting process,” Larry Sabato, a leading election expert, told TPM. “The GOP won the House at just the right moment, in a wave election that gave them many governorships and state legislatures in a Census year. Bingo. Many weaker House members elected in 2010 who would have lost in their old districts in 2012 have been given better districts that will reelect them.”
Even the election forecasters most optimistic about Democrats’ hopes eventually conceded the majority was a stretch. Princeton professor Sam Wang, who in late September gave Democrats 3-to-1 odds of taking back the House, drastically lowered the odds two weeks ago — to 18-33 percent. Initially citing Democrats’ advantage in the generic congressional ballot, which he labeled the “leading indicator,” he later said that would be offset by the GOP’s advantage in redistricting and incumbency.
“The big factors are redistricting and incumbency,” Wang told TPM. “In the last few years, Republican-controlled legislatures were very effective at redrawing districts to favor their side. Gerrymandering gave them a built-in advantage of 1.25% of vote margin even before a single vote is cast. Incumbency also has its advantages, which is good for another 1.25%. … Polls indicate that Democrats may well win the national popular House vote, but probably not by enough to take control.”
Democrats chalk up the lost opportunity partly to the tightened national environment and retirements of high profile members, but they mainly blame Republican gerrymandering.
“One of the biggest challenges,” said a Democratic operative closely involved with House races, “is that Republican-controlled states like Pennsylvania intentionally finalized their map as late as possible making it less likely that a top tier Democratic candidate could get into the race and raise the money needed to compete in an expensive media market like Philadelphia. That won’t happen in 2014.”
Tuesday morning on MSNBC, top Obama adviser David Plouffe downplayed the broader national implications of voters reelecting a Republican majority in the House. “My sense is voters aren’t necessarily sending a macro message,” he said. “They’re going to be making individual decisions in their own districts.”
Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia who runs the Crystal Ball election forecast, said surveys show voters have a strong desire for bipartisanship and balanced government.
“So the House results,” he said, “are best explained by incumbency, redistricting, a status-quo election, and a vague desire for bipartisanship and balance of power.”
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.