House 2016: The Balancing Act

How expectations of a Clinton victory could hinder Democrats down-ballot


While Hillary Clinton still leads Donald Trump in most national polling, her margin is not what it once was: She’s up about five points in the HuffPost Pollster average, down from nine points in mid-April, and she’s up just two points in the RealClearPolitics average, also down from nine points seven weeks ago. Now that she’s the presumptive nominee, Clinton will hope to restore those numbers to their prior luster.

However, the betting markets have been fairly steady on the race, giving Clinton a consistent edge even as her polling has weakened. PredictWise, which tracks these markets, gives the Democratic nominee (almost certainly Clinton) a 74% chance to win the presidency. The odds of a Democratic presidential victory have not dipped below 65% since early March.

Relatedly, polls asking voters who they believe will win can be a better predictor of the actual winner than asking who someone will vote for. So perhaps Clinton can take some solace in the fact that while she trailed Trump by two points (46%-44%) in an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in mid-May, she actually led 50%-40% in the “who do you think will win” question. Another survey, the most recent NBC News/SurveyMonkey weekly tracker, also asked voters to handicap the election, and Clinton’s five-point lead (49%-44%) was basically the same as her four-point horse race lead (48%-44%). So the general public isn’t as sold on her chances as the betting markets are, but nonetheless sees her as a favorite, according to these recent polls.

Now, what does this have to do with the House? Well, there’s some evidence that if Clinton (or Trump) becomes a prohibitive favorite in the election, that might actually reduce the power of down-ballot coattails. That’s the argument of an intriguing new paper by Robert Erikson, a political scientist at Columbia University.

Erikson’s study, published by Legislative Studies Quarterly, analyzes post-World War II congressional voting in presidential election years. It finds that some voters, particularly well-informed independents, will anticipate a likely victory for one party in the presidential contest and compensate for that victory by voting for a different party for Congress.

While there are plenty of examples of presidential winners providing major coattails to their fellow partisans down ticket (1928, 1932, 1948, 1964, 1980, and 2008 are all examples), there are other years that produce a “lonely landslide” where a highly favored presidential candidate wins a big victory but doesn’t help his party much down-ballot. Some examples include 1972, 1984, and 1996: In fact, one Republican operative told us to expect a 2016 repeat of the GOP’s “check and balance” argument in 1996, which this person said helped prevent Bill Clinton’s Democrats from making congressional gains in an election the incumbent president easily won and where election markets installed him as a near-certain winner.

It’s possible that a more germane example is 1972, where a polarizing figure (Richard Nixon) won a predictable, blowout victory over a candidate who had trouble uniting even his own party (George McGovern) and made negligible down-ballot gains in the House (adding just 12 House seats to a Republican minority) while losing two net Senate seats. Election markets made McGovern the biggest underdog of the postwar era — they effectively gave the South Dakota senator no chance to win, according to Erikson’s research — which perhaps allowed voters to recognize the likely outcome and put a check on Nixon by retaining Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. For Republicans in the House and Senate, 1972 might actually provide a best-case scenario in the event Trump’s general election campaign goes south.

However, 2016 is not necessarily 1972. For one thing, voters are more partisan now and generally less prone to split tickets — some of Nixon’s best states were in the South, which was still largely a Democratic-dominated region in Congress back then. In fact, the 2012 cycle had the lowest share of split-ticket voters (10%) in the history of the American National Election Study, going back to 1952. Clinton also is not as big of a perceived favorite now as Nixon eventually became. Additionally, Erikson notes that coattails are still quite valuable in presidential years: “For a congressional party, it is good to win the presidency even as its anticipation causes some balancing in advance of the victory.”

Here at the Crystal Ball, we’ve long emphasized the increasing prevalence of straight-ticket voting in both the House and the Senate. But Erikson’s paper provides an interesting possible explanation if Clinton becomes a huge favorite in the fall and wins the election handily but winds up producing disappointing down-ballot results.

The overall House picture and ratings changes

On Tuesday, Rep. Renee Ellmers (R, NC-2) became the first Republican House incumbent to lose this cycle, but she lost to a fellow incumbent, Rep. George Holding, in a radically redrawn district where he had a geographic advantage. Donald Trump’s late endorsement of Ellmers obviously didn’t do her any good, but the deck was stacked against her anyway because of court-ordered, mid-decade redistricting in North Carolina. Every other incumbent running in North Carolina won, although Rep. Robert Pittenger (R, NC-9) is clinging to a tiny lead.

Assuming Pittenger wins, House incumbents will be 168 for 170 in primaries this year: The only other loser was indicted Rep. Chaka Fattah (D, PA-2). That’s very much in line with history: More than 98% of House incumbents who sought renomination got it in the post-World War II era. This cycle’s tally does not include California, where all 49 House incumbents who sought another term advanced to the November general election after finishing in the top-two of their all-party primaries. These are not traditional primaries, but one can consider advancing to the second round akin to winning a primary.

The California results are not yet finalized, so we may have more to say about them after they are, but one result that stood out to us was the relatively weak showing by Rep. Darrell Issa (R, CA-49). He beat little-known, poorly-funded Doug Applegate (D) just 51%-45% in the all-party contest (an independent took the remaining share of the vote). Issa, who is more prominent than your average House member thanks to his former tenure as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, is the wealthiest member of the House, so he can put plenty of money into the general election rematch in the fall. The primary turnout, thanks to the contested Democratic presidential race, was probably more Democratic-leaning than an average California primary turnout, although the electorate could be even more Democratic in fall. As of the most recent count, about 2 million more presidential ballots were cast in the Democratic primary as opposed to the Republican one, but Barack Obama actually won California by 3 million votes in 2012. We’ll get a better sense of the actual turnout disparity once the California results are finalized — there may still be many votes to count — but the closeness of Issa’s race may not just be a function of Democratic presidential primary turnout.

Issa’s district, which is located between Los Angeles and San Diego, leans Republican, though not overwhelmingly so: Barack Obama actually won the district by a point in 2008, and Mitt Romney won it by six points in 2012. Still, the district’s voter registration is trending Democratic, and it is a quarter Hispanic and has far above-average median income and college education levels, all indicators that could suggest Trump could underperform Romney’s 2012 performance, potentially hurting Issa. And if national Democrats want to try to boost Applegate in the fall, about three-quarters of the district is covered by the San Diego media market, which isn’t as pricey as the more expensive, and gigantic, Los Angeles market, which covers the other quarter of the district.

Ultimately, Issa should be fine. Remember, a “Likely” rating means that one side is still clearly favored over the other.

We have two other ratings changes to announce this week, one that benefits each party. Rep. Collin Peterson (D, MN-7) actually holds the most Republican district held by any Democrat. His rural, western Minnesota supported Romney by 10 points in 2012. Republicans spent heavily against him in 2014, but even in that GOP-leaning year he won by eight points. The filing deadline recently passed in Minnesota, and Peterson has not drawn a top-tier challenger. Once Peterson retires — he will be 72 later this month — this district should flip to the Republicans. But Peterson has enough local credibility that we now see his race as Safe Democratic.

Meanwhile, Democrats are looking for a new challenger to Rep. Mike Bishop (R, MI-8), a freshman who holds a competitive but Republican-leaning central Michigan seat. Actress Melissa Gilbert (D) ran a lackluster race and recently announced that she would be withdrawing from the race for health reasons. That could allow Democrats to replace her on the ballot after the Aug. 2 primary — she’s currently the only candidate on the Democratic ballot — although there’s some question about precisely what will happen. However, even if Democrats find a strong candidate, that person would be getting a very late start. For the time being, we’re moving this seat to Safe Republican, but we’re also reserving the right to revisit it if Democrats can scrounge up a quality candidate.

Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings changes

These changes to our House ratings mean there are now 207 Safe Republican seats and 177 Safe Democratic ones, so that means we only list 51 competitive seats in a 435-member House. There are 227 seats Safe/Likely/Leaning Republican, 190 Safe/Likely/Leaning Democratic, and 18 Toss-ups. Splitting the Toss-ups down the middle would lead to a 236-199 Republican House, or a net gain of 11 seats for the Democrats, 19 short of the 30 they need to win control.

There may be a Democratic wave that develops, but there’s not much sign of it right now. One way to assess the possibility of a Democratic surge is through the House generic ballot, a national poll asking respondents whether they support a Democrat or a Republican in their local House race. There aren’t many pollsters tracking this question at the moment, but a few surveys conducted over the past few months included in the RealClearPolitics average show a Democratic lead of about two points. Remember: Democrats narrowly won the national House vote in 2012 but only won 201 seats. In 2006 and 2008 — years where Democrats won House majorities — they led the generic ballot polling by about 10 points right before the election.

That’s probably where the generic ballot polls will have to be in the fall to suggest that Democrats have a real shot at flipping the House.