Yes, Democrats can win the House (though probably not this year)
Historically, the number of competitive House races is declining. But that's not Democrats' problem this year. And that holds hope for them in elections beyond 2014.
Chris Cillizza wrote a piece titled, “Why it’s going to be hard for Democrats to win back the House this decade.” He makes the argument that with a declining share of competitive seats it will make it harder for Democrats to retake the House. The declining number of competitive seats is a big problem. However, it’s not the reason Democrats won’t have the House majority in 2015.
There are a few points to discuss. First, Mr. Cillizza argues the decline in competitive seats is due to the redistricting process. He particularly points out 2001 and 2011 as important moments when seat competition declined. It’s important to note that redistricting does have an effect on House elections. The Monkey Cage estimated that redistricting cost Democrats roughly 7 to 10 seats in the 2012 election. Gerrymandering can make some seats safer and it can also alter seat totals in the House.
That said, it is probably not the major reason competitive seats are in decline. For one, the decline in competitive districts goes back several decades. David Mayhew first pointed out the case of the “vanishing marginals” in 1974, noting that competitive districts had been on the decline since at least 1956. While it’s possible gerrymandering has had a role in this development, most political scientists believe the overall effect of gerrymandering is a wash. While it may make some seats safer, it often makes others more competitive.
Second, partisan gerrymandering can’t explain low electoral competition across the US. This argument is not explicitly made in the piece but it is often assumed partisan gerrymandering hurts competition. However, even in states without partisan gerrymandering congressional competition is weak. For example, California uses a nonpartisan commission to draw its congressional districts. In the 2012 election, after congressional district lines were redrawn, party control changed hands in only three of California’s 53 House districts. In other words, 94 percent of California’s House districts remained unchanged. Both partisan and nonpartisan redistricting practices suffer from lacking party competition.
Lastly, Democrats will not lose the 2014 House election due to lack of competitive races. The Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg Political Report estimate there are roughly 43 to 36 competitive races in this election cycle, respectively. Democrats are 19 seats short of a majority in the House. Numerically speaking, there are more than enough competitive races for Democrats to have a fighting chance at the speaker’s gavel in the 114th Congress.
In other words, Democrats’ problem is not a lack of competitive seats. It is the electoral conditions they face in 2014. A sluggish economy, low presidential approval, the mysterious six-year itch, when historically voters punish incumbent presidents at the polls, and low turnout will likely plague Democrats in 2014. Under a good economy, high presidential approval, and high turnout their chances would be much better. Democrats almost certainly won’t win the 2014 House election. But their future chances are still very much up for grabs.
Bottom line, Democrats almost certainly will not win the 2014 House election but that won’t be because there are not enough competitive seats.
Joshua Huder publishes his Rule 22 blog at http://rule22.wordpress.com/.