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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

March 30: Can Democrats Retake the House?

Riveting as the presidential election has been so far this cycle, it’s important for Democrats to keep an eye on what’s happening down- ballot. Here are some thoughts on the connection between the two that I discussed at New York:

It is not lost on Democrats watching the whole Republican presidential nominating contest veer crazily into a demolition derby that the GOP is almost certainly going to nominate one of their weakest candidates according to general-election polling, Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. And both of these gents are nicely fitted in the dead man’s clothes of a landslide loser in November, with Trump alienating millions of normally reliable Republican voters and Cruz channeling the ideological excesses of Barry Goldwater.
But aside from giving Democrats a better-than-average chance of holding on to the White House, would Trump or Cruz at the top of the ticket have serious consequences down-ballot? Most of the early speculation on this topic has focused on the battle for control of the Senate, where the GOP’s four-seat margin was already in some question thanks to a landscape where too many vulnerable Republican senators (e.g., Johnson, Kirk, Ayotte, Toomey, Portman) are running for reelection in blue states. But now the wild rhetoric of the GOP presidential primaries and Trump’s terrible general-election numbers are making Democrats think about the previously unimaginable prospect of winning the 30 net seats necessary to take back control of the U.S. House for the first time in six years.
The Washington Post‘s Paul Kane has a good roundup today of expert opinions on this possibility. One independent observer, Nathan Gonzales, downplays its likelihood, noting that House Democratic plans focusing on 2020 or even 2022 (after the next decennial redistricting) may have led the party to underrecruit viable candidates for this cycle. The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman documents the tough math for Democrats but notes it is still early:

Right now, we rate only 31 Republican seats as at risk, meaning Democrats would need to win an impossibly high 97 percent of them – and hold all their own seats – to take back control. But filing deadlines still haven’t passed in a majority of districts, and it’s worth watching how many more Democratic recruits Trump and Cruz will entice in the coming months.

Wasserman also notes two important crosscutting data points: On the one hand, past presidential landslides have not necessarily produced correspondingly large House turnover, but on the other, the widespread ticket-splitting that made these variable results possible has been declining steadily in recent years. So that leads to the big imponderable question: If, say, Donald Trump is getting waxed by 20 points in the presidential race, will normally Republican voters split tickets, vote for Democrats, or skip voting altogether? It’s really difficult to know at this point.
It is reasonably clear that the rise of straight-ticket voting owes a lot to the growing ideological consistency of the two major parties, with Republicans in particular becoming a monolithic conservative coalition. By contrast, back in 1972, Democrats in (for example) Georgia could reject liberal presidential nominee George McGovern and then (with the help of a convenient sub-presidential straight-ticket ballot line) vote for a consistently moderate-and-conservative set of Democratic candidates down-ballot. And that’s exactly what they did. Nowadays the gradual extinction of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats both among candidates and voters means fewer people inherently inclined to split tickets. But arguably both Trump and Cruz, in somewhat different ways, stray far enough from the ideological consensus among Republicans that down-ballot candidates (perhaps supported by signals from party leaders) have no compunctions about distinguishing themselves from their party’s presidential candidate, much as southern Democrats did in the heyday of ticket-splitting. This could be particularly true if disunity is apparent at the very top of the party hierarchy, as it seems to be now that the three remaining presidential candidates are abandoning loyalty pledges to support the ultimate nominee.
Given the unusually large GOP majority in the House and thus that party’s exposure in marginal districts, and the pro-Democratic turnout patterns typical in recent presidential elections, some Democratic House gains are almost certain, even if the Republican presidential candidate is not an albatross. Democratic gains short of a majority could paradoxically increase the power of the House Freedom Caucus by reducing Speaker Paul Ryan’s room for maneuvering without Democratic votes. But it’s worth keeping an eye on the number of Republican seats that look vulnerable after the conventions. It was widely believed during the last decade that success in redistricting gave Republicans a lock on the House until 2012. The lock was picked in 2006 and a whole new order was (very temporarily) created by Democratic wins in that year and in 2008. It remains to be seen if a scary presidential nominee can do as much damage to the GOP as did the Iraq War and the financial crisis.

It’s a question we had no way of anticipating as central to Campaign ’16.

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