It’s still four days until the election, but some forecasters are already calling the fight for the House of Representatives.
“The race for the House is over: Republicans are going to keep it,” says Geoffrey Skelley, who tracks congressional math at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, in an interview. “I can give you a probability on that prediction: There is zero chance Democrats win it.”
Hillary Clinton is clinging to a narrow lead in the presidential race, and Democrats have at least a decent shot of winning back the Senate. But as Skelley, the Washington Post, and the Cook Political Report have all predicted this week, it’s now all but guaranteed that Republicans will keep the House — and keep Congress gridlocked into 2017.
Donald Trump’s recovery has helped saved congressional Republicans
We’ve known for a while that Democrats would face long odds in retaking the House this year. They need a 30-seat swing, and no incumbent party has gained that many since 1964. So history was never on their side.
Republicans have also gerrymandered a fortress of remarkably safe seats, forcing House Democrats to have to outperform Republicans nationally by massive margins to win back the House. (In 2012, House Democratic candidates overall got several million more votes than their Republican rivals. But because of gerrymandering, so many Democratic votes went to safe seats that they still didn't win House control.) Partially as a result, Democrats also have had a heap of difficulty recruiting qualified candidates for important seats.
But Donald Trump’s polling implosion back in August — and then again after the “grab ’em by the pussy comments” surfaced — looked like it might be a once-in-a-lifetime political event. When Trump was down by around 10 points in some polls, it was possible, if you squinted a bit, to envision wildly depressed Republican turnout that might allow Democrats to eke out a House victory.
Skelley calculated that if Clinton blew out Trump by 7 points or more, she would win in 50 House districts currently represented by Republicans. Having Clinton win a district never meant that the Democrats’ House candidate would also win — but it at least suggested the possibility.
"All of our models, and so much of what we know, suggest that the House Republicans should be fine," Barry Burden, a political scientist at Wisconsin, told me back in early October. "But all of the models also presume that parties operate the way parties have operated in the past. And the trouble with Trump is that he’s changing everything at once."
But over the past three weeks, support for Trump has stabilized. Upward of 85 percent of Republican voters now plan to support him. He’s now running even or only a few points behind Clinton. There’s strong enthusiasm for his campaign.
Democrats needed an essentially unprecedented collapse in GOP turnout to take back the House. And with Trump’s resurgence, it’s clearer than ever that they’re not going to get it.
“Trump has recovered in the polls,” Skelley says, “and he’s taken Democrats’ chance of winning the House with him.”
The Democratic Party is not popular enough
But Trump’s recovery is not the only reason we can be reasonably certain the House is out of the cards for the Democrats. Other key signs show that the Democratic Party simply isn’t popular enough to do so.
Now, it’s normally very difficult to figure out who is set to win the House — unlike the presidential and Senate races, there are very few public polls of individual districts. Instead, experts rely on what’s called a “generic ballot,” which asks voters if they’d prefer a generic Democrat or a generic Republican (with no names attached) to get a sense of which party is more popular in the country overall.
Historically, this metric has probably been one of our best ways for guessing what will happen in House races across the country. Right now, it shows that Democrats are leading by 3 points.
That does mean they’re on pace to win millions more votes than Republicans in November, just not enough for the House. Earlier this campaign, Emory political scientist Alan Abramowitz created a model based on the “fundamentals” — things like the state of the economy and the president’s approval rating — to game out the state of the House race.
He projected that Democrats would need somewhere in the range of a 14-point victory to pick up 31 House seats:
A win of 3 points puts them in range to pick up 11 seats — about a third of what they really need.
That’s not going to cut it. Democrats hoping to take back the House always faced long odds. But if they really want to take seize control of Congress, they’ll almost certainly have to look beyond 2016.