The Democrats Can Win the House

Deep in red state country, the last Democratic optimist has a model that shows Democrats keeping a slim majority. Ben Crair on how the president can help pull it off.

09.11.10 7:17 PM ET

Two months after White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs let slip that Republicans could take over the House of Representatives in November, the Democrats’ prospects have only grown bleaker: No one seems to think that they have a prayer. Nate Silver announced Friday that Republicans have a two-thirds chance of gaining control of the House. Charlie Cook says the Republicans will win “well north of the 39 seats needed for the House to flip,” while, at a recent gathering of the American Political Science Association, several academics predicted Republican gains of 50 seats.

But not everyone has written off the Democrats just yet. Deep in the heart of red country, Rob Mellen, an assistant professor of political science and public administration at Mississippi State University, has something that offers liberals a flicker of hope: a model that shows Democrats keeping a slim majority of the House of Representatives—between 224 and 226 of the House’s 435 seats.

Mellen’s isn’t the only model that shows the Democrats holding on to the House. But unlike the others in this category, which look mostly at slow-changing economic fundamentals, Mellen’s model shows that President Obama himself can make a difference between now and Election Day. Mellen looks at the impact of presidential campaign appearances on behalf of House candidates in midterm elections. With just two exceptions—George W. Bush in 2002 and Bill Clinton in 1998—the party of the sitting president has lost House seats in every midterm election since FDR’s Democrats picked up seats in 1934. “I’m looking to see if making these campaign appearances can actually help to mitigate these losses,” Mellen says.

Conventional wisdom holds that they do not. “To help Democrats in the fall, Obama may stay away,” was the headline of a New York Times article in July. And yet Mellen’s model shows otherwise. When the president visits a toss-up race in a congressional district, his candidate goes on to win the election about 50 percent of the time; when the president sits out a toss-up race, his party’s candidate wins just 35 percent of the time.

The improvement has to do with the so-called enthusiasm gap. The dire predictions for the Democrats in November don’t necessarily assume a defection of voters from the Democratic Party to the GOP. Rather, Republican voters, riled up by being out of power, are more likely to turn out in the midterms; Democrats, resting on their laurels after the 2008 landslide, are much more likely to sit this one out.

A presidential visit to a toss-up race, according to Mellen, inspires some Democrats who would otherwise skip the polls to actually vote. Voter turnout always declines from presidential-year to midterm elections, but midterm toss-up races visited by the president see a lower decline in turnout than expected. Essentially, a visit from the president helps his party to narrow the enthusiasm gap that traditionally favors his opponents.

Not everyone is on board with Mellen’s findings. “It’s a stretch to say this factor is enough to keep the House Democratic,” says Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia. “Most models are suggesting a strong GOP victory.” Michael Lewis-Beck of the University of Iowa says “Visits seem to help little, if at all.” And Mellen will be the first to admit that his model isn’t rosy for Democrats: It still predicts they will drop 30-something seats.

“If Obama’s success rate is roughly the same as his predecessors… the Democrats would hold the House,” Mellen says.

What Mellen’s model does do is offer the groundwork for a plan for President Obama and the Democrats to minimize their losses. With the House likely to be split somewhere near 50-50 between the parties, a concerted campaign effort by President Obama could save for the Democrats the handful of seats needed to retain a bare majority. A huge number of races this year are counted as statistical toss-ups—45, according to The Cook Political Report. If Obama visits half of those, he’ll steal the title of most active campaigner from George W. Bush, who hit up 22 districts in 2002. He’s unlikely to be as successful as Bush, who won 19 of those races, but the recent proliferation of polling data should help his cause. For one thing, it’s already kept the Democrats from being caught off-guard like they were by the Republican Revolution in 1994. And it at least makes it easier for the Obama team to choose the districts he’s most likely to save. “If his campaign team and strategists work things properly, they’ll be able to put the president where he matters most,” Mellen says. “If Obama’s success rate is roughly the same as his predecessors… the Democrats would hold the House.”

Richard Wolffe: Is a White House Shakeup Ahead?

Full coverage of the midterm elections
Whether Obama and his team effectively use polling data to intervene in toss-up districts remains to be seen; The New York Times article from July seemed to suggest they wouldn’t. “I think much of the House is in a wait-and-see mode to see how helpful the president will be,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, (D-MD) told the Times. “He has to come into these districts with the same gusto and the same sense of hope that he came into the election with.”




Ben Crair is the Deputy News Editor at The Daily Beast.