Truths and uncertainties that surround the 2014 midterms

“The only certainty is that nothing is certain.”

These words, from Roman philosopher Pliny The Elder, are well-heeded in the arena of electoral politics. Thinking forward to the 2014 midterm elections, a year is a lifetime in politics. Yet, the following truths narrow our uncertainty about the outcome of next year’s midterms.

Typical midterm turnout favors Republicans. Core Democratic constituencies — youths, minorities and the poor — tend to see their participation decline more precipitously in midterm elections than the Republican core constituency of older affluent whites. Of course, these are just tendencies that set the table. Democrats can prevail in non-presidential elections, as they did in 2006, and Republicans can win the presidency, as they did in 2004.

Redistricting tilts the House playing field in the Republicans’ favor. Republicans masterfully manipulated district boundaries during the last redistricting to provide a structural advantage in how votes are distributed among House seats. In the 2012 election, Democratic candidates received approximately 1.4 million more votes than Republicans, but Republicans won 33 more seats. Democrats will need to do even better than their 1.2 percentage point margin in 2012 if they are to reclaim a House majority.

Senate Democrats are defending on Republican territory. With 53 Senate Democrats and two independents that caucus with them, Republicans need to pick up six seats to win a Senate majority. This is a tall order, given that only 35 Senate seats are up for grabs. Three Democratic incumbent retirements in red states Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia aid the GOP cause, and Democratic incumbents will face competitive challenges in the red states of Alaska and Arkansas. After that, the pickings become slimmer and potential opportunities exist for Democrats to win Republican seats. Republicans will likely pick up seats, but need a wave election to run the table if they are to control the Senate.

The generic House ballot currently favors the Democrats. If Republicans need a wave election, it is not apparent in the current polling. The poll averages indicate House Democrats enjoy about an 8-point advantage pitting faceless Democrats against Republicans. This may seem more than enough for Democrats to win the House and retain the Senate, but this lead is likely overstated. Many current polls of the 2014 election are of adults or registered voters. If nothing else changes in the next year, the Democrats’ advantage will be narrowed when polling models shift, closer to the election, to include only those likely to vote. Taking into account a likely voter adjustment, there is no evidence a Republican wave is now building to sweep the Senate and the margin may be enough for Democrats to take the House, if the election were held today.

Republicans are at historic polling lows, but will this persist? Republicans can take solace while adrift in their current doldrums that politics will change in the next year. Past polling showed the public moved strongly against Republicans following the 1995 shutdown and the 1998 impeachment of then-President Clinton. By the following election, Republicans recovered enough to hold their House majorities. A year out from the historic 2010 Republican electoral landslide, Democrats enjoyed about a 5-point advantage in the generic House ballot polling averages, for all the good it did them.

It is certain that electoral conditions will be uncertain in the coming year. The sizable Democratic advantage in the House generic ballot is unlikely to persist, and it is wise to consider that Republicans are in uncharted waters with their unprecedentedly abysmal poll numbers. The certainty of polling volatility we observe in the past may thus not be a good future guide.

The electoral advantages of incumbency favor House Republicans and Senate Democrats. Candidates are not generic empty vessels into which voters pour their own hopes and fears. Voters are inevitably exposed to candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. A major strength favoring Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate is incumbency. Members assiduously cultivate their constituents’ goodwill. Incumbents are also money magnets. As a consequence, incumbents inevitably perform a few percentage points better than the generic ballot indicates.

Anecdotes indicate Democrats are using the current environment to recruit quality candidates. Another reason why incumbents do well electorally is their ability to scare off potential quality challengers. Savvy challengers lurk in the depths and strike when they sense blood in the water. The time is around now that potential candidates decide to file their candidacy papers to run for office. Some quality Democratic candidates have been attracted by the shutdown chum — for now, their numbers appear limited, although more could be circling out of sight. Perhaps most importantly for Democrats is that 2014 may not be a self-fulfilling prophesy of failure, with their top players on the field instead of sitting on the bench.

Tea Party candidates could hobble the Republican Party, again. By all rights, Republicans should currently hold a Senate majority. Opportunities in key Senate races have been wasted in the last two elections by extreme Tea Party candidates who have allowed Democrats to claim victories in races the early generic ballot polling indicated were likely Republican wins. It is too soon to know how successful Tea Party candidates will be in the 2014 nominating contests, but they may again open doors for the Democrats that are currently shut.

The most likely 2014 outcome is no change in control of either chamber. Still, both sides have a place to hang their hopes. Senate Republicans need to make up a lot of ground but are battling on favorable territory, and if the election were held today Democrats might take the House. In the balance, Republicans have more upside potential than Democrats, who rely on the whims of public opinion. While this may seem good news to Republicans, a 2014 victory continues to delay the turnout problem facing the party in a presidential general election, which eventually, due to the country’s changing demographics, will permeate into midterm elections.

McDonald is an associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He directs the United States Elections Project.

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