Can Democrats gain the 17 seats they need to win control of the House in 2014? Maybe, but the numbers look forbidding. Remember that while Barack Obama was reelected with 332 electoral votes he carried only 209 of the 435 congressional districts. Mitt Romney carried 226. Only 17 Republicans were elected in districts carried by Obama; 9 Democrats were elected in districts carried by Romney. It is theoretically possible for Democrats to win a majority in 2014 by defeating all of the 17 Republicans in Obama districts while reelecting all of the 9 Democrats in Romney districts. But that’s not a very likely scenario. Obama carried most of those 17 districts by only narrow margins, and with the aid of more Democratically tilted electorate in the presidential year of 2012 than is likely to turn out in the off-year of 2014.
So for all practical purposes Democrats must defeat at least some Republicans in Romney districts in order to win a House majority. That could be entirely possible if opinion swings away from Republicans and toward Democrats, as it did between 2004 and 2006. But there is not much sign of that happening yet, and the scandal news these days doesn’t seem like a conducive environment for such a development.
In these circumstances, Democratic campaign chairmen have an incentive to adopt the strategy of House campaign chairman Rahm Emanuel and Senate campaign chairman Charles Schumer in 2006: to run moderate candidates adapted to local terrain in Republican districts. This worked well for what was then the opposition party, as George W. Bush’s job approval sank well below 50% and Democratic challengers and open seat candidates could portray themselves as independent of the national party. That will be harder to do now with an incumbent Democratic President in office, particularly since Barack Obama has been pursuing a solidly liberal agenda.
Another problem for Democrats is that there are so few seats that were won by narrow margins in 2012 — and that most of those seats are held by Democrats. Looking at the election results as tabulated by the Cook Report’s David Wasserman, I find only 34 seats in which the victor’s winning margin was 5% or less (that is, less than 5.50%). A majority, 19, of these seats are held by Democrats, as compared to 15 by Republicans. So even if Democrats captured all 15 of the Republican seats and held their own 19, they would still be short of the 17-seat gain they need for a majority in the House.
Interestingly, these seats seem to be concentrated on the coasts more than in the heartland. The Democratic seats include AZ 1, AZ 2 and AZ 9 (products of a redistricting commission successfully gamed by Democrats); CA 7, CA 26, CA 36 and CA 52 (ditto); CT 5 (open seat); FL 18 (controversial Republican incumbent); IL 10 (upscale suburbs); MA 6 (incumbent Democrat with scandal allegations); NH 1 and NH 2; NY 1 (eastern Long Island), NY 18 (Hudson Valley) and NY 21 (North Country). These seats would seem vulnerable to a Republican version of the Emanuel/Schumer strategy: run moderate candidates suited to local terrain. But it’s not clear that the Republican campaign committee is encouraging this or whether local Republican primary voters would nominate such candidates. Three other Democratic held seats don’t fit this profile: NC 7 (Southern rural/small town), TX 23 (large Hispanic population), UT 4 (heavily Mormon).
The seats Republicans won by 5% or less tend to be concentrated in the heartland rather than near the coasts, though they do include NY 11 (Staten Island, one of two districts carried by John McCain in 2008 and Barack Obama in 2012), NY 23 and NY 27 (both Upstate). Others include CA 10 (Central Valley); CO 6 (redistricted to disadvantage of Republican incumbent); FL 2 (high black turnout in 2012) and FL 10 (high Hispanic turnout in 2012); IL 13 (new seat created by Democratic redistricters); IN 2 (open seat); KY 6 (Republican captured on coal issue); MI 1 (North Country); MN 6 (incumbent Michele Bachmann is now retiring); NE 2 (Omaha); OH 16 (industrial northeast); and PA 12 (coal country). Most of these look pretty safe for their mostly conservative incumbents.
In contrast to the meager 34 seats that were decided by 5% or less of the vote, there were only 46 seats that were decided by between 6% and 10% and a whopping 370 — 85% of the seats in the House — that were decided by more than 10%. Almost all of these 370 seats have to be regarded as safe for one party or the other.
The bottom line is that there doesn’t seem much room for either party to make significant gains in the House, absent a significant change in the current partisan balance.