Why House Republicans Don’t Have an Electoral Incentive to Compromise

Even if the GOP behaves badly in the budget and debt-ceiling fights, its members of Congress face little risk of losing House control.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 01: People look at a sign informing them that the Statue of Liberty is closed due to the government shutdown in Battery Park on October 1, 2013 in New York City. Federal museums and parks across the nation are closed starting today due to a government shutdown for the first time in nearly two decades. The Dow Jones industrial average, the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq all rose slightly higher in early trading Tuesday morning. 
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Charlie Cook
Oct. 3, 2013, 4:05 p.m.

Could Re­pub­lic­ans lose their House ma­jor­ity if the budget show­down and the up­com­ing debt-ceil­ing fight go badly for them? Any­thing can hap­pen, of course, and the polls show­ing that Re­pub­lic­ans are likely to catch more of the blame than Pres­id­ent Obama for Wash­ing­ton’s dys­func­tion are mak­ing some Demo­crats more op­tim­ist­ic about their pro­spects of re­gain­ing con­trol. Still, the odds of a Demo­crat­ic takeover of the cham­ber are slim.

Even though the gap between Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats in the House is only 17 seats, it would take a pretty big wave to get Demo­crats up to 218. We have seen waves be­fore: 1980, 1994, 2006, and 2010 come quickly to mind. But, then again, the party hold­ing the White House was on the los­ing side in each of those tid­al-wave elec­tions. A Demo­crat­ic takeover would re­quire a huge wave run­ning against the party not in the White House, something that hasn’t happened since Frank­lin Roosevelt’s first few years in of­fice.

How bad would things have to get for the GOP to lose its ma­jor­ity? One an­swer is to look at where each of the 435 House races stand today. Demo­crats would have to win 100 per­cent of the 192 races The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port now rates as Sol­id-, Likely-, and Lean-Demo­crat­ic, plus all of the 10 races in the Toss-Up column, all of the 11 races in the Lean-Re­pub­lic­an column, and five (29 per­cent) of the 17 rated as Likely-Re­pub­lic­an. Need­less to say, that is a very tall or­der.

Stu­art Rothen­berg and Nath­an Gonzales use some­what dif­fer­ent rat­ing cat­egor­ies in The Rothen­berg Polit­ic­al Re­port, but their num­bers sug­gest es­sen­tially the same chal­lenge for Demo­crats. In their Sept. 27 edi­tion, they rate 211 Re­pub­lic­ans seats as “Cur­rently Safe,” just sev­en short of lock­ing up a ma­jor­ity. Demo­crats would have to win all 175 races that the Rothen­berg news­let­ter rates as cur­rently safe for Demo­crats, all 18 that it calls “Lean/Favored” for Demo­crats, all of the 14 Toss-Up races, and 11 of 17 of the Lean/ Favored Re­pub­lic­an seats.

In a tsunami year, you can cer­tainly count on seats fall­ing that vir­tu­ally no one ex­pec­ted. In the 1994 wave that handed House con­trol to the GOP for the first time in 40 years and made Newt Gin­grich the speak­er, Re­pub­lic­ans needed 40 seats to get a ma­jor­ity. No ob­ject­ive ana­lyst thought that was a real­ist­ic pos­sib­il­ity. With Ham­burger Help­er, you could ima­gine gains in the low 30s if you gave every con­ceiv­able race to the Re­pub­lic­ans — but not 40. Only the Kool-Aid drink­ers who pre­dicted GOP ma­jor­it­ies in vir­tu­ally every elec­tion were pre­dict­ing that in 1994; I cer­tainly didn’t think it could hap­pen. (My late moth­er saved a USA Today clip quot­ing me as giv­ing Re­pub­lic­ans a one-in-three chance of tak­ing the House; I wish I could re­call say­ing that, but I really don’t re­mem­ber.) But, again, these waves al­most al­ways hit the White House party, not the op­pos­i­tion. Even in the Clin­ton-im­peach­ment-back­fire elec­tion of 1998, GOP losses were min­im­al.

A dif­fer­ent ap­proach is to look at how much the na­tion­al vote for the House would have to shift to yield the 218 seats the Demo­crats need for a ma­jor­ity. Dav­id Wasser­man, the House ed­it­or for The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port, re­cently crunched the num­bers in a spread­sheet of all 435 House res­ults from 2012. Last year, with Obama at the top of the tick­et beat­ing Mitt Rom­ney by just un­der 4 per­cent­age points, Demo­crats car­ried the pop­u­lar vote for the House by 49.16 per­cent to 48.03 per­cent, a shade above 1 per­cent­age point. Look­ing at the mar­gins in each dis­trict, Wasser­man cal­cu­lates that Demo­crats would need to win the total House vote na­tion­ally by at least 6.8 per­cent­age points to take 218 seats next year. It would re­quire one heck­uva tail­wind for Demo­crats to run up that kind of pop­u­lar-vote mar­gin, something un­pre­ced­en­ted in mod­ern midterm his­tory for the party hold­ing the White House.

Mov­ing to the sub­ject of the shelf life of a budget fight gone bad, an Oct. 1 ana­lys­is by the Gal­lup Or­gan­iz­a­tion’s Eliza­beth Mendes looked at Gal­lup’s ap­prov­al and fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings, among oth­er poll num­bers, im­me­di­ately be­fore the 1995-96 gov­ern­ment shut­downs, just after them, and then sev­er­al months later. Both Pres­id­ent Clin­ton and Gin­grich saw their num­bers dive im­me­di­ately after the shut­downs, but then they bounced back com­pletely or with­in a di­git or two. The cur­rent budget and debt-ceil­ing show­downs are oc­cur­ring more than a year be­fore the midterm elec­tions; it seems un­likely they’ll have the stay­ing power to af­fect ap­prov­al rat­ings that far in the fu­ture. Oth­er events between now and Elec­tion Day are likely to shift the num­bers around.

Ob­vi­ously, nobody knows what will hap­pen with the cur­rent fights over the budget and the debt ceil­ing. Could they change the land­scape suf­fi­ciently to cre­ate a huge and un­pre­ced­en­ted wave for the pres­id­ent’s party in 2014 — a wave that could swing that many dis­tricts and shift the na­tion­al vote that much? Sure, any­thing’s pos­sible. And I sup­pose I could be thin by Christ­mas. But I wouldn’t bet on either.

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