In light of the nation’s shaky economy and jobs situation, Republicans gaining ground in generic Congressional matchup polling, and President Barack Obama’s approval ratings falling to yearly lows across several states and nationwide during the past month, several political pundits have recently predicted very large Republican gains in the U.S. House elections in 2010.

Of course, unknown world events, the response to these events by policy makers, potential D.C. scandals, and possible retirements by U.S. Representatives creating open seats, will all carry more weight to determine the balance of power on Capitol Hill than any calculations made by pundits some 13+ months out from Election Day.

However, a Smart Politics analysis of U.S. House election returns finds that while the GOP is historically likely to pick up seats in the 2010 midterms, next November’s election might look a lot closer to (though falling short of) the 2002 midterms or the 2004 general elections (in which the party in power, the GOP, held serve and even gained a few seats) rather than the 1994 or 2006 midterms (in which the party in power lost substantially – 54 seats for the Democrats and 31 seats for the Republicans respectively).

To be sure, during the past few months, several political pundits and D.C. insiders are already projecting significant Republican gains in 2010.

· In late August, former Clinton adviser and current Fox News contributor Dick Morris predicted Democrats could lose 100 seats: “It’s a disaster for the Democrats. You could literally, at this point, see 100 seats changing in the House.”

· This month, University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato at the Crystal Ball wrote: “After examining all 435 House races for 2010, the Crystal Ball projects that Republicans will gain between 20 and 30 seats.”

· Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report recently stated: “Many veteran Congressional election watchers, including Democratic ones, report an eerie sense of déjà vu, with a consensus forming that the chances of Democratic losses going higher than 20 seats is just as good as the chances of Democratic losses going lower than 20 seats.”

In addition to the national political factors in play, analysts also point to the fact that Democrats will have to defend more seats in “McCain districts” (49) than Republican House members in “Obama districts” (35).

However, there is some data which points to the likely Democratic losses in 2010 not only falling far short of another Republican Revolution, but not even on the scale of the ‘tsunamis’ of the 2006 and 2008 elections, during which Democrats amassed their nearly 80-seat advantage they hold today.

For starters, two-thirds of the seats won by Democrats in 2008 (170, 66 percent) were won in landslide fashion, decided by more than 30 points over their Republican challengers. This is approximately the same percentage of GOP seats won in 2002 by 30+ points (157, 68 percent) after which the Republicans went on to gain three House seats in 2004.

This is a very large foundation onto which the Democrats can build their majority again in 2010 (the GOP only holds 178 seats total), as nearly all of these 170 Democratic seats (barring retirements) should be safe next November. In 2006, for example, of the 22 GOP incumbents who lost their reelection bids, only 5 had won by more than 30 points in 2004 (with one of these being the scandal-plagued Don Sherwood, PA-10).

Overall, the average margin of victory in U.S. House districts carried by the GOP in 2002 was 41.2 points, compared to 44.7 points for districts carried by the Democrats in 2008.

Secondly, over 90 percent of Democratic seats were won by double-digits in 2008 (233 of 257 seats), with just 24 seats decided by less than 10 points. And even though Democrats increased their advantage by 21 seats from 2006, the number of districts they won by less than 10 points decreased, from 28 in 2006 to 24 in 2008.

In fact, the Republican Party actually won a larger number of seats by competitive, single-digit margins in 2008 than the Democrats (26 to 24) – putting a much greater percentage of GOP House districts in ‘battleground’ territory (15 percent of their seats) compared to that of the Democrats (9 percent of their seats).

The challenge for Democrats is not so much to hold onto their 250+ House seats (they did so successfully from the 98th through 103rd Congresses in the 1980s and early 1990s), but to do so while also controlling the presidency. Of course, an important element to the midterm elections is that Democratic U.S. House candidates will not have a popular presidential candidate at the top of the ticket in 2010. Instead, they will have a president with a record.

And that is why President Barack Obama’s approval ratings will certainly have some bearing on how many of these 50 or so competitive house districts in the country turn red next year. Larry Sabato advances the following formula:

“If President Obama’s approval rating sinks into the low 40s next year, which would produce a net approval rating of around -10, and Republicans take a 5 point lead on the generic ballot, the GOP would still be expected to gain only 4 seats in the Senate. However, such a scenario would put Republicans in position to come very close to regaining control of the House with an expected pickup of 41 seats. On the other hand, if the President’s approval rating rebounds into the mid 60s, producing a net approval rating of around +30, and Democrats have a 10 point lead on the generic ballot, the GOP would be expected to lose one seat in the Senate and gain only 15 seats in the House.”

Looking back to polls conducted by the Gallup organization around Election Day during the 2004 election cycle, however, Republicans were able to add House seats to their majority even though President George W. Bush had an approval rating of 53 percent, and with Democrats owning a +1 advantage on the generic congressional ballot.

The scale of U.S. House seat losses by the president’s party becomes much greater, of course, when his approval ratings approach numbers well short of the 50 percent mark.

For example, Bush’s approval rating was at just 38 percent when Democrats picked up 31 seats in 2006, and Democrats held a +7 generic ballot advantage. In 2008, Bush’s approval rating was 25 percent and Democrats held a +12 generic ballot advantage.

Election Day Presidential Approval and Generic Congressional Ballot Numbers

Presidential approval
Congressional ballot
+6 GOP
+1 DEM
+7 DEM
+12 DEM
2009 (Sept.)
+3 DEM*

Note: All polling data by the Gallup organization except the generic Congressional ballot data for 2009 by NBC News / Wall Street Journal. Gallup polls from 2002-2008 conducted into the first week of November before Election Day.

And as for the impact of the economy on 2010, one would expect the nation’s unemployment situation to be a significant factor in shaping the midterm election fate for the party controlling the White House. Though, this isn’t always the case.

· When Democrats lost the House in 1994, unemployment had been steadily declining during President Bill Clinton’s first two years in office, from a high of 8.0 percent in January 1993 to 5.3 percent by November 1994. In fact, unemployment had dropped 15 percent from July 1994 (6.2 percent) leading up to Election Day in November.

· In 2006, when the Republicans lost the House and 31 seats, unemployment had fallen from 5.1 percent from January of that year, and was down 17 percent from the previous Election Day in 2004 (5.2 to 4.3 percent).

· And when the GOP gained 8 seats in the 2002 midterms, unemployment had actually increased by 1.9 points since November 2000, from 3.7 to 5.6 percent – a gain of 51 percent. Some analysts, and many Republicans, attributed this spike in unemployment to a declining economy at the end of Clinton’s term.

One key question is, if unemployment rates hold or increase during the next year, whether or not voters will attribute the unemployment increases that have occurred during the Obama administration (only 13 percent thus far) to the Democrats and President Obama or to President Bush.

In short, while the safe money is on Republicans to make inroads on the Democrat’s 79-seat majority in 2010, there is plenty of data that suggests these losses will be mitigated, and fall short of the revolution that some radio and television personalities believe is just around the corner.

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  1. jeux drole on October 1, 2009 at 12:13 am

    I can say Republican candidates have now matched their biggest lead over Democrats of the past several years on the Generic Congressional Ballot. We need to be mindful of how we are voting this time around.

  2. John Hansen on October 1, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    I’m a lifelong democrat and think the fatcat, war mongering GOP is the pits.

    That said however I will vote gop in every contest – to remove those who have sold me out and corrupted my party.

    oBUMa is a loser and has lied to just about everybody – but he’s no “socialist” as they say. Real Socialists work for the little people – FASCISM uses government to force little people to do what the big corporations do. Not an eyelash different from communism – oBUMa is a rich man’s president – as proven by his cutting programs for the little people and making sure the bankers and insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies get huge cash.

  3. Ybebeth on October 12, 2009 at 12:21 am

    If you have to do it, you might as well do it right.,

  4. rex shawhan on November 9, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    Dems will lose excess of 40 seats and lose control of the House of Representatives. Anger is building everywhere (look at the elections in Va. and N.J.). Dems will be facing an energized and potent GOP base. Independents have dramatically shifted to the GOP. LOOKOUT Dems you’re going down fast!! The Healthcare vote in the House will bring down many Dems in GOP districts…..The wave is coming against the DEMS!!

  5. Justin on November 15, 2009 at 1:51 am

    GOP will gain seats, no doubt about that. But how many they gain depends on the health care bill. If the bill doesn’t pass, Republicans will only gain around 15-20. If the bill does pass, then Republicans could gain up to 40. And if the economy gets any worse along with that, Republicans gain 50+.

  6. David on December 2, 2009 at 1:42 am

    As one political pundit once stated, “Its the economy, stupid.” I can think of no better summation of the democrats problem. If we have near 10% unemployment by November 2010 and combine that with the huge deficits, I see no way the democrats maintain control of the house.

    Frankly, I think it will be that bad. Here it is December, 2009 and the economy is getting worse. I read about the stimulus bill and I realize that it was just a collection of Pelosi pay offs. By the way, who elected Pelosi president? She seems to be setting the agenda.

    Cap and Trade will be a killer, however, I don’t think it will pass. Healthcare would cause another 1 to 2 % unemployment (small companies will layoff marginal workers in anticipation of it to cut costs). However, I don’t think it will pass either. Obama has us now in a fullscale war in Afghanistan (the “war of necessity” in his so nicely stated words during the campaign).

    So, we either have nothing passing and about 10% unemployment and a war, or we have healthcare and cap and trade and about 12% and a war. How do you win on that?

  7. Lin on August 26, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    People should have banded together years ago and dismantled the “good ole boys club” in Washington. This has been a swift kick in the butt as a harsh reminder WHO they work for. Bring in some new fresh blood who has heard the people loud and clear and their ONLY interest is governing by the Constitution and for the people!!!!

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