WASHINGTON -- A new poll of 50 competitive congressional districts by the Democrat-sponsored polling organization Democracy Corps finds "the new Republican majority very much in play," but much recent punditry argues the opposite -- that Democrats face long odds to reclaim the House of Representatives.
Although caution is in order when seeking to predict an outcome that is still 19 months away, there is some truth in both perspectives. To understand why, consider the recent postings of various pollsters, pundits and statistical modelers:
In December, Republican pollster Glen Bolger offered a "guarantee" that Republicans would maintain control of the House, even if President Barack Obama "stages a political comeback" and wins reelection. Bolger argued that recent presidents who have won reelection have had short coattails. The biggest swing to the president's party was in 1984, when Ronald Reagan's landslide swung 16 seats to the Republicans. The Democrats need 25 to regain control of the House.
"Obama is not likely to win a blowout reelection," Bolger wrote, and even 16 seats would be insufficient for Democrats to regain control of the House. He also noted that Republican victories in gubernatorial races in 2010 give the GOP a big net advantage in the ongoing redistricting process. Thus, Bolger guarantees a win.
Earlier this month, election handicapper Charlie Cook reached a similar conclusion: Another "wave election," this time favoring the Democrats, is unlikely in 2012. Like Bolger, he highlighted the lack of recent presidential coattails in House elections and the Republican redistricting advantage, but Cook also noted that that the 63-seat Republican pickup in 2010 might leave the party "overexposed" in districts "where they wouldn't normally win." His conclusion is little net change in 2012: "It’s not hard to imagine these off-setting forces resulting in a more-normal House election."
For their newly released poll, Democracy Corps surveyed 50 competitive House districts currently represented by Republicans, including 44 in districts that Barack Obama carried in 2008, plus the six "most competitive seats" in districts won by McCain. They find "the two parties at parity" in these seats, with Republicans running an average of just two percentage points ahead of their likely Democratic opponents (46 percent to 44 percent; they matched the named Republican against "the Democratic Candidate" where the opponent was unknown). Republicans carried the same districts in 2010, according to the Democracy Corps report, by an 11-point margin (54 percent to 43 percent).
Democracy Corps also reports that the incumbent Democrats held a slightly larger six "6-point advantage" in a similarly designed survey of seats held by Democrats in July 2009 and that the current crop of Republican incumbents "remain[s] largely unknown" and is thus "very vulnerable" in 2012.
Republican pollster Bolger and colleague Jim Hobart quickly responded that voting patterns in the districts selected by Democracy Corps explain their confidence about 2012. Although Obama carried 44 of the 50 districts in 2008, Democratic nominee John Kerry won just 12 of these districts in 2004. Their bottom line: "In order to win the 25 seats they need to take back the house, Democrats will most likely need to win no fewer than 13 districts won by Bush in 2004."
Enter the modelers. Former HuffPost Pollster intern Harry Enten created a statistical model based on the 15 presidential year elections since 1952 and argued that Republicans will maintain control of the House in 2012 "unless a historic event occurs." Nate Silver took issue with the mechanics of the model and the degree of certainty Enten reported about his findings (Enten responds here).
The bottom line? Headlines and "guaranteed" results aside, much of what the pollsters, pundits and number-crunchers assert above is true. It is still early in the 2012 cycle, and the most vulnerable Republican incumbents -- many of them newly elected -- may well look vulnerable on traditional polling measures, at least for now. But history, the advantages of incumbency and the size of the Republican majority are all on the side of Republicans maintaining control. Enten and Silver may quarrel about the mechanics of modeling, but both agree that the "safe money" is on the House Republicans in 2012.