If Dems Don’t Win the House in November, Can They Kiss 2020 Goodbye?

YM: Today I am allowed the mighty pleasure of featuring an analytical piece from Mark Sasse—a jack of many trades; master of all—but a man I recognize firstly as an early impetus for my interest in politics and related matters.

Mark W Sasse is a novelist and award-winning playwright who loves to dabble in the frivolity of political speculation when not knee-deep in the creative arts. His new novel The African Connection is book two in his low fantasy thriller series The Forgotten Child Trilogy. In his former life, he taught history and English in both Vietnam and Malaysia. He currently teaches theatre in Saudi Arabia. When he’s not writing or teaching, he’s cooking spicy Asian food or watching baseball. Check out his work on mwsasse.com

Mid-term elections are volatile. Almost always. They historically display the cantankerousness of the American electorate with pristine clarity. Mid-term elections are like the shiny new Christmas toy that finds itself dunked in an April mud puddle simply because you’ve become bored with it. That’s what happens. Two years after a presidential election is just enough time for the euphoria of “change” and “hope” and “greatness” and all other election slogans to wear thin to such a degree that the populace brutally penalizes the president’s party to let the other jokers have their turn messing things up. It’s a cynical cycle without question. The numbers back this up very clearly. Let’s take a look at the data before conjecturing their meaning for 2018.

In post-World War II America—which covers a span of eighteen mid-term elections—the president’s party on average loses 24 seats in the House of Representatives. Currently, there are 235 Republican representatives, 193 Democratic reps with seven vacancies. But for our purposes, I’ll count the vacancies based upon the party of the person who most recently held that office, bringing the Republican count to 240 and the Democratic count to 195. Therefore, the Democrats need to pick up 23 seats in the House in order to reach the magic House majority number of 218.

Did you see that number? 23! The Democrats need only reach the post-WWII midterm loss average for them to flip the House in November.

That sounds do-able. Even likely.

But before we get into that, let’s look a little closer at the numbers. Of those eighteen mid-term elections I referenced, only one of those elections came close to hitting that average and that was the 1950 election when Truman’s Democrats lost 28 seats.

What this means is that the minority party in the House does not flip the house by winning a moderate, average amount of seats. It rarely happens. What does happen is that the majority party is trounced badly by the minority party. Take a look at these numbers showing the president at the time and how many House seats his party lost at the midterms:

  • 2010 Obama -63
  • 1994 Clinton -54
  • 1974 Ford -48
  • 1966 LBJ -47
  • 1958 Eisenhower -48
  • 1946 Truman -54

When the president’s party isn’t getting trounced, then the shift is much less dramatic. Here are some examples:

  • 2014 Obama -13
  • 1990 H. W. Bush -8
  • 1986 Reagan -5
  • 1982 Reagan -2
  • 1962 Kennedy -4

Only twice during this time has the president’s party actually increased its number of House seats. George W. Bush in 2002 was riding high with post-9/11 popularity and had a resounding +8. Bill Clinton was able to push aside impeachment and achieve the impossible with a +5 gain for the Dems in 1998.

So historically, the minority party either wins big or wins small.

What does that mean heading into next month’s election?

The Real Clear Politics averages currently have the Democrats winning 205 of the 435 seats, the Republicans winning 198 with 32 toss-ups. If these numbers hold-up, the Dems need to win only 13 of the 32 in order to flip the House into their control.

Is this do-able? It certainly is, and they should be favored to do so if history has anything to say about it, but it isn’t going to be a historical win like the Republicans in 2010. If the Democrats do win the House, it will be by the average amount—which isn’t normal. And it is still conceivable that the Republicans could actually hold onto the House, which would be the nightmare scenario for the Democratic Party. Every possibility except a Republican trouncing still seems to be on the table.

What does it mean that the Democrats aren’t poised for historical gains even if they do win the House?

One could argue that after two years of a politically rocky Trump presidency it would seem likely that a trouncing of the president’s party is in order. But it now looks as if the Democrats will not even win back half as many Reps as Obama lost in 2010. This, coupled with the current Real Clear Politics prediction in the Senate of a possible Republican net gain of three seats, shows a general political playing field that is not favorable for the Democrats. To compound things, even the spread between Trump’s approval rating and his disapproval rating is the narrowest it has been since May 2017. All of this is a strong indication that Trump has a sizeable advantage heading into his 2020 re-election campaign.

In American politics, you can’t bank on anything these days. I’m pretty sure 2016 made that abundantly clear. But it’s not far-fetched to say that if the Dems don’t win big next month, they might have to kiss 2020 goodbye as well.

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