Losing is not much fun in any aspect of life, as research in psychology has shown, and people (including current or prospective members of Congress) might naturally try to avoid such situations where constant losing is inherent in day-to-day life. Indeed, I find that conditions of high minority party hardship result in an inability to recruit experienced candidates and to convince incumbents to not retire. What this means is that the widespread belief among many Democrats that winning a House majority would be highly difficult, while arguably well-founded, nonetheless could deter quality recruits from running in potentially winnable races. I’ll delve into this more below.
One way to determine the strength of candidate recruiting is to assess how many of them have prior experience, which in case this means having previously held elective office. This of course isn’t a perfect metric, since sometimes elected officials can turn out to be poor candidates for higher office, while some first-timers can exceed expectations. However, this definition allows us to get a rough sense of a candidate’s potential strength, since successfully running a previous campaign usually does serve a candidate well in the future.
Under conditions of lower hardship for the minority party, they are typically able to recruit experienced candidates in about 23 percent of seats held by the majority party. This share falls to 18 percent when hardship is high.
In the same vein, about 10 percent of minority party incumbents retire under conditions of high hardship, while 7 percent retire when hardship is low.
So what does this mean for Democrats’ ability to win the House majority in 2018? I don’t specifically include statements like those made by Emanuel—or the conclusions like those of writer David Daley, who says he thinks gerrymandering means there’s “zero” chance the Democrats can win back the House before 2030 (!)—in my measure of hardship. However, if prospective Democratic candidates and incumbents perceive winning the House majority as a more difficult task than it actually is, a potential implication of these statements is increased difficulty in recruiting experienced challengers and convincing incumbents to run again next year.
As experienced candidates are more likely to win House elections, and incumbents have an advantage in winning re-election, Democrats would then face an even more uphill battle to win the House. It’s one thing to say that Democrats should believe they can win the House, but is this a realistic expectation? And while Daley’s view might be overly pessimistic, Daily Kos Elections’ Stephen Wolf has shown that gerrymandering has indeed made this task more difficult.
If Democrats are to win the House in 2018, the most plausible targets are Republican-held districts that Hillary Clinton won or Donald Trump only narrowly carried in 2016. As Daily Kos Elections' recent calculations show, there are 23 Republican members in Clinton seats and another 17 members in seats that Trump won with under 50 percent of the vote. At the same time, there are 12 Democrats in seats in Trump seats, and another eight Democrats in seats where Clinton won with less than 50 percent of the vote.
A quick comparison with 2006—the last time Democrats won back the House from Republicans—shows that Democrats are in a somewhat worse offensive position, but also have fewer seats that they need to defend. Looking at the so-called “crossover districts” heading into 2006, there were 18 Kerry-Republicans and 41 Bush-Democrats. Democrats needed to pick up 15 seats to win back the House that year, meaning there were three more Kerry-Republican seats than the number necessary for a Democratic majority.
By contrast, following the 2016 elections, there is currently one fewer Clinton-Republican seat than the 24 Democrats need to win the House next year. At the same time though, Democrats only have to defend 12 seats won by Donald Trump in 2018, many fewer than the 41 Bush-Democratic seats they needed to defend in 2006.
In total, winning back the House in 2018 is not an easy task for Democrats, but it is also not impossible. If 2018 is a wave election on par with 2006 or 2008, Democrats could potentially overcome their structural obstacles and net the 24 seats they need to win a majority. They could even do so by only winning seats where a majority of voters in 2016 voted for someone other than Donald Trump.
However, Democrats may not be able to take advantage of Donald Trump’s low approval ratings (should they persist) if talk of winning a majority being impossible makes prospective candidates and incumbents decide not to run. As a result, if Democrats are forced to field a slate of political amateurs, the perception that Democrats are unable to win a majority—as furthered by quotes like the one from Emanuel— may then become reality.
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