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Rob Richie Headshot

A Guide to Tomorrow Night's Congressional Elections - and the Future

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In Brief:

  • FairVote's Monopoly Politics 2012 report, published in July 2012, projected the outcomes of over 75 percent of congressional races using no post-2010 variables other than the partisanship of the district and whether it is an open seat. Today, congressional election analysts see only 5 percent of our 333 projected winners as even potentially vulnerable. Of our 266 projected "safe" winners, 262 are seen as coasting to wins.
  • Our analysis suggests that some prominent election forecasters may be missing the partisanship forest for the campaign trail trees in several races - and are perhaps making their greatest errors in the key states of New York and Illinois.
  • Of the 33 candidates running unopposed by a major party, Monopoly Politics 2012 made projections for victories by 32 in July. Of the three districts that FairVote projected would switch parties, two are now considered by mainstream analysts to be safe for the outcome we predicted -- not even potentially competitive for the majority party. The third district is a 69 percent Republican district in Oklahoma.
As Election Day approaches, analysts of the U.S. congressional map are finalizing their projections for competitive U.S. House races. There is a broad consensus that only about 75-85 congressional races have a chance to be competitive. FairVote's Monopoly Politics 2012 report, viewable in a user-friendly interactive map, was released in July. It projected the outcomes of 333 out of 435 House races based solely on the partisanship of the district, whether an incumbent was running, and the most recent House election in that district. We did not factor in candidate quality, fundraising, or anybody else's predictions.

Of those 333 races, only 17 were listed as possibly competitive by RealClearPolitics as of November 2 -- with only four of the 266 races we had projected as safe considered competitive. Just three of those 17 races are listed as a tossup or likely seat change, and our partisanship landscape analysis makes us confident that almost all of these races will in fact ultimately go as we projected. At the same time, roughly two-thirds of the 102 races in which we made no projections are listed as competitive by RealClearPolitics.

The success of the Monopoly Politics 2012 projections confirms FairVote's belief that the partisanship of a district is the single most dominant factor in determining the outcome of congressional elections.

Looking at Potentially Competitive Races through a Partisanship Lens

We projected conservatively in July, but now that the election is just days away and nationwide polling strongly suggests that this will be roughly a 50-50 election in terms of partisanship, FairVote's partisanship data can be used to provide insights into some of the more hotly contested House races.

We urge people to read our report and also spend time looking at our fair voting alternative plans for every state. But our data is also valuable for those interested in the 2012 horserace for control of the House. Our partisanship-based analysis tells a different story than that of other prominent election predictors -- RealClearPolitics, the Cook Political Report, and the New York Times.

These analysts, whom we select as representative of conventional political wisdom about the upcoming election, take into account many factors in their projections other than district partisanship, including candidate quality, money, and polling data. While these factors might prove to be decisive in any given race -- and we appreciate the valuable insight that these analysts bring into races based on the specifics of a campaign -- a district's partisanship will override those factors in the vast majority of congressional elections.

The 2010 elections are a good example of the power of partisanship. The Republicans had a remarkably good year. But 40 of the 52 seats in which they beat a Democratic incumbent were districts in which Barack Obama underperformed his national average in 2008, and they failed to defeat a single one of the 139 Democratic incumbents from a district with a partisanship greater than 55 percent.

Turning to 2012, we've identified at least 20 races where our partisanship-based projection model diverges from the conventional wisdom, and are therefore worth watching -- or not watching -- on Tuesday and in the next several Congressional cycles. For a detailed review of these races, visit our website for a piece I co-authored with my colleague Devin McCarthy.

It's time to look beyond simplistic critiques of gerrymandering and money in politics. Because of winner-take-all rules and voters' hardening partisan leanings, four out of every five states are no longer contested in presidential elections. It's even worse for congressional and state legislative races. It's time to rethink winner-take-all elections and establish fair voting systems of proportional representation to give every voter a meaningful vote in in every election for representation in "the People's House."