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Anybody who's been reading Nate Cohn at the New Republic the past couple weeks could be forgiven for thinking he's moved on from polling analysis to devote himself to a new passion: concern trolling. The message his pieces have constantly been giving off, at least implicitly, is that "Democrats have no chance of retaking the House in 2014, so not only don't get your hopes up, but don't even try." He started off on September 26 arguing that Wendy Davis has no chance of winning the Texas governor's race (an assessment that, to be fair, I agree with), followed by a series of articles explaining why the government shutdown won't be that bad for the GOP/could be worse/they'll recover/whatever.  Next came a couple of posts explaining why recent PPP polling (featured on this site) does not portend a Democratic House takeover, and arguing that Democrats will not retake the House even if they win the popular vote by 8 points. It's this latter article I chiefly want to respond to, but first let me say a few things:

1. I do intend to make the case for optimism regarding Democrats' 2014 prospects in the House, but I am not saying I think Democrats will retake the House, or even that they are likely to do so. I just think there is a greater chance it will happen than Nate Cohn and a lot of other commentators/prognosticators. Which brings me to a second point:
2. I don't really mean to pick on Nate Cohn (although in any case I doubt he cares what an anonymous, extremely sporadic DKE diarist thinks about him.) I just chose his articles because unlike Charlie Cook, Stu Rothenberg, etc, I follow him on twitter and see when he publishes new material.  I'm sure he does not actually intend to come off as a concern troll.
3. It is kind of strange to see Nate's pessimism re: 2014 while John Judis is apparently predicting the death of the GOP on the same website.(1)

So with that out of the way, let's take a look at what Nate had to say most recently:

1. Democrats are "far from likely" to take back the House in 2014 even if they win the popular vote by an 8% margin. Instead they will "probably" need a double-digit margin to do so.
2. Democrats can't repeat a "2006-esque" wave because prior to 2006, the GOP held 18 seats with a PVI of D+2 or greater, and now they only hold 2. In other words, there are many fewer Democratic targets.
3. Polling does not show Democrats with the double digit lead  they need to win back the House, and since the GOP can't sink any lower than they are right now, they won't get it.

Now, I do not intend to argue with his third point. I can't predict the future, neither can Nate Cohn, and neither can anyone else. On November 3, 2004, who would have predicted that 2 years later Democrats would retake the House and Senate, and 4 years later Barack Obama would be elected President? Absolutely nobody. I have no idea what polling numbers will look like a year from now, or what will happen in the US and the rest of the world to move those numbers. So maybe Nate's right on this point, and maybe he's not; I don't think it's really worthwhile to engage. Instead, what I do want to argue is that, if Democrats' polling numbers do hold up, and those numbers translate to a victory by 8% on Election Day 2014, or even by 7%, or even by 5-6%, Democrats will retake the House. Here is my thinking.

Let's start with a little bit of history. Since 1960, only twice has a party won a majority in the House while losing the popular vote: in 1996, when the GOP lost the popular vote by .07% but won 227 seats to the Democrats' 206, and last year, when the Democrats won the popular vote by 1.4% but took only 201 seats to the GOP's 234. For the Democrats to win the popular vote by  5% or more and still not win a majority of seats would be historically unprecedented. Of course, that doesn't mean it can't happen, but it should give all those pessimists out there a bit of a pause. Secondly, since 1960, 7 elections have seen one party gain 4.5% or more of the popular vote. In these 7 elections, the smallest number of seats gained was 26.(2) This number would, of course, be more than enough for the Democrats to take back the House next year.(3)

Now, let's take a look at what's out there in terms of pickup opportunities. Nate argues that in 2006, Dem pickups were dependent on seats with PVIs of D+2; of which the GOP held 18 prior to the 2006 elections but only 2 now. Therefore, "the best pick-up opportunities are already held by Democrats," and "a 2006-esque wave would only barely get the Democrats over the 17 seat threshold they need to take back the House in 2014." I think this is just plainly wrong.

Nate based his analysis on the PVI of the seats the Democrats took in 2006 and the PVI of Republican held seats today. If instead of PVI you look at the percentage that Obama took last year, we get some pretty different results. By my count(4), the GOP holds 5 seats where Obama took 52% or more of the vote. It holds 13 seats where Obama took at least 49% but less than 52% of the vote. And it holds 28 seats were Obama took at least 46% of the vote but less than 49%. Those numbers look quite different: if the Democrats can win half of the GOP seats where Obama took at least 49%, and 1/3 of the seats where he won between 46% and 49%, they'll have more than enough to retake the majority. It's not likely or easy, but it is certainly doable. If Democrats win the popular vote by 5% and don't do it, I'd be shocked; if they won by 8% and don't do it, I'll cover my apartment with framed Nate Cohn articles.

I think part of the issue here might be with PVI itself.(5) As far as I understand it, PVI is basically an indication of where a district stands in relation to the past 2 Presidential elections. So, in simplified terms, if the average GOP vote in the past 2 Presidential elections was 52%, and a particular district voted 51% for the GOP, that district would have a PVI of D+1, since it is 1 point more Democratic than the nation as a whole.

Where am I going with this? Well, in 2006, the GOP had won the past 2 Presidential elections(6), and the GOP vote in 2004 and 2000 averaged out to 49.3%. So in 2006 an R+1 district would, on average, have given 50.3% of the vote to GW, an R+2 district would have given him 51.3% of the vote, etc.  However, in the past 2 Presidential elections, the GOP has averaged only 46.5% of the vote. So now even an R+3 district will only have voted, on average, 49.5% for Romney.

All this is just to say that not all R+3 (or R+2, R+4, etc.) districts are created equal. If the country is voting 60% Democratic on average, even an R+7 district is still going to be within reach for the Dems. I think, though I'm not positive, that what Nate has done here is compare districts' current PVIs not with a modern PVI (ie calculated according to the 2012 and 2008 elections) based on their former borders, but with their 2006 PVIs-which were calculated according to the 2004 and 2000 elections. And if so, that's a problem. Because today, a district with a PVI of R+2 is a district that Romney and Obama about tied in, and that, all else being equal, Dems should have a pretty good shot at. In 2006, a district with a PVI of R+2 was a district that Bush beat Kerry in by about 4 points. Basically, I just don't think you can compare PVIs at different points in time like that, because the meaning of PVI is constantly changing.

That (hopefully) coherent aside on PVIs concluded, what's particularly strange here is that back in April Nate Cohn agreed with me!(7) I'd love to know what's changed his thinking since then.

(1)Side note: I haven't read Judis's article. Is it any good?
(2)By the Democrats in 1982.
(3)FYI, admittedly, 1960 was a completely arbitrary choice.
(4)Based on the Pres by CD numbers available on this site.
(5)I don't claim to be an expert, so maybe I'm understanding PVI incorrectly.
(6)Well, they really only won 1, but I digress.
(7) "Democrats could probably win the House with a modest victory in the House popular vote, perhaps something like the 4 or 5-point margin suggested by a FiveThirtyEight model in 2011."

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Comment Preferences

  •  The problem with a PVI-based analysis.. (2+ / 0-)

    is that it assumes districts stay constant. There have been massive realignments in the past. In 1955, anyone who said that the South would turn red within twenty-five years would've been laughed out of the building. Passing the civil rights legislation shattered the Democratic hold on the South, and it's been receding ever since.

    In 2004, I would've screamed to the world that Virginia would not be competitive in 2008. Then suddenly.. Obama won it. Then he won it again. Now it's one of the most competitive of the swing states, matching the voting habits of the nation pretty much to the T, at least at the statewide level.

    It's true that traditional Democratic groups tend to cluster in cities - Hispanics, Blacks, Asians, and so forth. But while I don't see the Black vote moving away from ~95% Dem for the rest of my lifetime, I DO see the white vote becoming less Republican. Evidence for this is in the exit polling for white youths, who are slowly but surely replacing their older, far more conservative parents.

    PVI numbers are incredibly crude. They are calculated only by comparing the results of the Presidential election within the district to the nationwide performance. This ignores the old axiom, "All politics is local." A person may be staunchly pro-life, and so is leery of supporting anyone at the national level who is pro-choice (read: Barack Obama). Instead, this person may support a local Democrat who may be as progressive as they come on fiscal issues, but still hold to the same pro-life viewpoint as their constituents. This is how Mark Pryor has held his seat in otherwise deep-red Arkansas. Not signing things like that partial birth abortion bill would have been his death sentence in the state. Instead he signed it, and so we have him to thank for Obamacare today.

    Not only this, but it ignores the changing aspects of the parties themselves. The Democratic Party of the 90s was more conservative than the one seen today. The Republican Party of the same time was also more liberal and more willing to compromise. This appeals to people who may have conservative positions, but who do not wish to destroy the government, and who may wish to preserve Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security and other entitlements. As the Republican Party embraces these positions, and as this embrace becomes more widely known, expect people to change party affiliation at the drop of a hat, and otherwise solid-red districts to go blue. This is what happened in 2010 when districts that would otherwise have comfortably reelected individuals like Chet Edwards (D-TX) instead found themselves voting for his challenger by a huge margin. Thus did a safe seat flip - all because of a change in the positions of the wider party.

    At best, PVI is a guide. It tells you that a Democrat is not likely to win an R+20 district; not that he won't. Anyone who says the Democrats have no chance in 2014 is a fucking moron. I will say it straight to their face. And I swear to God, I'm e-punching the next dumbass who makes the argument that, because the "6 year itch" syndrome has happened before, that it must happen again. Politics. Is. Local. And history is not, and never will be, a crystal ball.

    Boehner: "Shut down Obamacare or the budget gets it!" Reid: "Don't think so." B: "But.. but.. shut down Obamacare!" R: "No." B: "... Please?" R: "Fuck off."

    by evilcommunist on Sat Oct 12, 2013 at 01:23:48 AM PDT

  •  Nate Cohn is a con artist, wet blanket, GOP (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Theodore J Pickle

    mouthpiece, shill.  We will carry this fight to every nook and cranny of this country and on election day, stay tuned, as the ground may shift to contain the new reality of governance.  

    Wendy Davis is creating a shudder in the Texas GOP bullies and we will see a contest of unmatched bigotry, ugliness and win at all costs on the part of the GOP, Tea Baggers, Koch Addict, Texas confederates.  But when the dust settles we will tax your butts and take the asset you have cravenly made into a god, your money and we will use it provide health care coverage for all the people of Texas even as you have acted like a foul beast to your people in Texas over the many years you have held power.
    And if she loses because you have painted her as a whorish single woman for example, then say your prayers bvecause your dmise will still follow you soon.  That is the changing  demographics Texas, now or later, it will turn Democrat and we will crush the Teapublicans.

    •  unfair charactgerization, in my view (0+ / 0-)

      and there are some pretty sharp nonpartisan analysts (like Alan Abramowitz, for example) that agree it'll take double digit generic leads to win back the House.

      getting close to that with the newest GQRR poll (+10) and as Republican John Weaver notes, they're not finished committing suicide yet.

      PS you can be  wet blanket without being a con artist or a shill. ;-P

      "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!" — Upton Sinclair

      by Greg Dworkin on Sat Oct 12, 2013 at 11:48:08 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Nate is a good analyst (0+ / 0-)

    who doesn't just deliver sunshine news. He plays it straight based on the numbers.

    please note, and this is important:

    Would someone on DailyKos clarify that I'm talking about the generic ballot, not the House popular vote? Thanks!

    "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!" — Upton Sinclair

    by Greg Dworkin on Sat Oct 12, 2013 at 11:42:51 AM PDT

    •  ... (0+ / 0-)
      @DemFromCT thanks! and feel free to note that I agree that Ds take back House w/a D+8 margin in the PV

      "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!" — Upton Sinclair

      by Greg Dworkin on Sat Oct 12, 2013 at 11:43:54 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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