Political handicapping has always been an inexact science, if not a foolhardy undertaking.
But anyone claiming to have a handle on the 2012 House-race landscape is selling fool’s gold.
To borrow a phrase from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, there are so many “known unknowns” with redistricting and candidate recruitment that it’s nearly impossible to make even broad projections on who will be best-positioned to pick up seats.
Like the locked-out National Football League, the onset of this House-race cycle will be delayed indefinitely. While leading Senate prospects have cropped up in many battlegrounds, hardly anyone has stepped forward on the House side.
It will take at least several months for members to find out the districts they’ll be representing. And without knowing the playing field, candidates will be slow to launch campaigns and party committees will be limited in their assistance. That should give incumbents—at least those unaffected by redistricting—an advantage, since challengers will have less time to prepare.
Despite this, we do have national indicators, historical guidance, a new battleground poll of swing House districts, and important developments on redistricting. All those signs point to it being challenging for Democrats to pick the seats necessary to take back the House, or for Republicans to expand their majority significantly.
Democrats need to net 25 seats to retake the House—a figure that, based on the results of the last several elections, seems manageable. Republicans netted 63 House seats in 2010, while Democrats netted 24 seats in 2008 after winning 30 in 2006.
That volatile streak is likely to come to an end in 2012. Presidents winning reelection have minimal coattails. When Ronald Reagan swept 49 states in 1984, his party only gained 16 House seats. Bill Clinton brought just three new House Democrats onboard in his decisive 1996 reelection. Richard Nixon romped in 1972 but the GOP picked up just 12 new House seats.
And there are few signs of a looming landslide. President Obama isn’t likely to be as much of a political asset as he was in 2008. His approval ratings are still under 50 and congressional Democrats’ ratings approval are poor—hardly the figures of an impending wave.
Democratic operatives, though, see an opening. Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, perusing numbers on a recently conducted Democracy Corps survey he commissioned testing public opinion in 50 battleground districts held by Republicans, says Obama’s and congressional Democratic challengers’ numbers are within striking distance. “The new Republican majority is very much in play in 2012,” Greenberg concludes.
There are a couple flaws there, though. Of the 50 Republicans tested, 35 were freshmen, and many of them lack much of a political identity. Over the next 18 months, they will do more leg work in their districts. And for Democrats to take back the House, they’ll need to be more than competitive in these battlegrounds—they’ll have to sweep most of these seats.
Meanwhile, nearly all of the districts will be redrawn—many to the GOP’s favor—rendering a lot of the early polling misleading. As Republican pollster Glen Bolger pointed out, nine of the 50 are in Ohio and Pennsylvania, where the GOP is in control of redistricting. Others, like the 13 seats tested in Illinois, North Carolina, and California, are likely to look markedly different after the process is complete.
When Republicans found themselves in control of redistricting in many battleground states after 2010, some bullish operatives thought they could use it to expand their ranks. But now, after closer scrutiny, GOP officials are placing a premium on protecting their own members instead of expanding the map.
That means many Republicans who look like tempting targets, like Reps. Dave Reichert of Washington, Scott Rigell of Virginia, or Steve Chabot in Ohio, could easily be running in much safer seats at this time next year.
California offers an illustration of the uncertainties facing House members thanks to redistricting. Voters passed a referendum last year calling for a bipartisan commission to redraw the lines, putting at risk the détente that has left the state’s 53 seats relatively stable among the two parties. As many as 10 members could be endangered under the new arrangement, according to Republican and Democratic strategists.
Fueling the volatility there is Hispanic growth, and its underrepresentation in the state’s congressional delegation. Six white California Democrats represent districts with a significant and growing proportion of Hispanic voters—and could be endangered in a primary. One of them, Rep. Bob Filner, has hinted that he will run for mayor of San Diego. But more GOP seats are threatened by the new lines—eight California Republicans represent districts Obama won in 2008, and many of the districts are poised to become even more competitive.
It’s merely the latest example of why most representatives will be paying more attention to state legislative leaders and lawyers than campaign officials and strategists over the next several months. And it’s proof positive that anyone who claims to have a crystal ball—or even some compelling polling—might find themselves changing their minds many times over in the next year.
This article appears in the March 30, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.