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— The Editors
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— While it’s very early in the cycle and these polls are not predictive so far in advance, the House generic ballot polling right now looks very similar to what we saw this time two years ago.
— Republicans almost certainly will need to lead on the generic ballot to retake the House, but perhaps they won’t need as big of a lead as we’ve seen in the past because of the nature of partisan voting in a presidential year and their abundance of targets in districts President Trump can or will carry.
— If new House maps are created in Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, and Ohio because of various court orders, Democrats would benefit on balance. But it may very well be that no maps end up being changed.
The 2019 generic ballot polls: They’re a lot like the ones we saw in 2017
Let’s start here with a caveat: House generic ballot polling from a year and a half before a general election should not be treated as predictive. The 2020 House election depends on a lot of factors that remain unknowable, most importantly the tone-setting effect of the presidential race, which at this point appears to be something of a 50-50 proposition.
That said, if you’re looking for signs of a growing backlash against the new Democratic-majority U.S. House of Representatives, you won’t find it in national generic ballot polling so far.
Democrats led the House generic ballot the whole way in the 2017-2018 RealClearPolitics average. From Jan. 1, 2017 through April 30, 2017, there were 12 generic ballot polls included. The Democrats led every single one, and by an average of six points.
This year, from Jan. 1 through April 30, there are 11 polls in the average, and the Democrats lead in every one… by an average of six points.
It is true that Democrats led the House generic ballot early in both the 2010 and 2014 cycles, too, both of which ended up being great years for Republicans in the House. That’s why we say this polling is not necessarily all that predictive. It may be that a pro-Democratic sentiment on the House generic ballot right now is essentially just a proxy for a preference for a generic Democratic presidential candidate against President Donald Trump. Former Vice President Joe Biden, typically the strongest-polling Democrat against Trump, leads the incumbent by about seven points, on average, in polling so far, pretty similar to the Democratic House ballot lead. If and when polling in the presidential race tightens, the generic may tighten, too. After all, we are in a partisan era where, as congressional scholar Gary Jacobson has documented, the incumbency advantage for members of Congress has diminished to a significant degree. A nationalized election could benefit House Republicans, most notably if Trump wins.
Republicans need to flip at least 18 House seats to win the chamber. With 31 Democrats in Trump-won seats, Republicans could win the House back just by sweeping all the Democratic House districts where Trump won by three points or more in 2018. That’s easier said than done. For one thing, we could imagine Trump’s performance weakening in some of these districts because they cover some affluent, highly-educated suburban areas that are trending away from Republicans. Also, and to the extent incumbency matters, Democrats have strong officeholders in some of these districts. Still, the districts are there for the Republicans to retake the House, at least on paper.
Typically one would expect a party flipping the House to have a considerable edge on the House generic ballot on Election Day. When the Democrats won the House from the Republicans in 2006 and 2018, their final generic ballot poll average lead in RealClearPolitics was 11.5 and 7.3 points, respectively. When Republicans took control of the House in 2010, their lead was 9.4 points. So the Republicans will need to be leading on the House generic ballot in order to win the House; they just might not need to lead by as much as we’ve seen in past years in order to win it given the characteristics of their best targets and the decline of ticket-splitting and the power of incumbency.
As it stands now, we continue to consider the Democrats favorites to hold their House majority, with a Trump reelection victory a necessary but perhaps not sufficient condition for a restoration of unified GOP rule in Washington.
Hold your horses on redistricting
Democrats’ chances to hold the House would be bolstered if court decisions mandating new districts in several states do in fact produce new maps for 2020. But don’t hold your breath.
Despite the 2018 House blue wave that flipped the lower chamber, Democrats came up empty in two big states: Ohio and North Carolina. Republicans maintained a 12-4 edge in the Buckeye State’s House delegation, and in the Tar Heel State, Republicans seemed to hold their 10-3 advantage until credible accusations of fraud prompted a do-over election in NC-9. The GOP primary for that race is next week (veteran Dan McCready, the 2018 nominee, is unopposed for the Democratic nomination).
A big part of the reason why Democrats failed to win any new seats in Ohio, and may not in North Carolina, is because both states have House maps gerrymandered by Republicans. The GOP actually gerrymandered North Carolina twice in the 2010s, both in an initial map for the 2012 election and then a re-do in response to a court order in advance of 2016. Still, the North Carolina maps have held for the Republicans throughout the decade, with the possible exception of the unusual NC-9 situation.
North Carolina redistricting, along with Maryland (which features a Democratic gerrymander), is at the center of a major Supreme Court decision in which the justices are once again considering whether to intervene to curb the excesses of partisan gerrymandering. Additionally, federal courts recently ruled that Michigan and Ohio’s House maps are partisan gerrymanders. Both maps were drawn by Republicans but, unlike in Ohio, Democrats picked up a couple of suburban Michigan seats last year despite the GOP gerrymander.
So it’s possible that all four of these states will have new House maps in 2020. That combination of outcomes would almost certainly benefit Democrats on balance. While Republicans would almost assuredly pick up a seat in Maryland — MD-6, held by Rep. David Trone (D), would become significantly more Republican in a fair remap — Democrats likely would pick up multiple seats from North Carolina and Ohio. Michigan is harder to figure because the delegation is currently 7-7 and a remap would not necessarily be guaranteed to help Democrats.
But it’s also possible, perhaps even likely, that none of the maps in these states actually will change at all this cycle. Republicans in Michigan and Ohio are hoping that the Supreme Court decides not to intervene in the Maryland and North Carolina cases, which might effectively overrule the lower courts’ decisions in Michigan and Ohio, too.
It took arguably the most liberal Supreme Court in American history, the Earl Warren court of the 1960s, to issue the landmark decisions that finally ended the malapportionment of congressional and state legislative districts, forcing districts to have equal populations and enshrining the principle of “one person, one vote” into legislative districting jurisprudence. Prior to that, the high court had stayed out of what Justice Felix Frankfurter called “the political thicket” of legislative map-drawing (Frankfurter dissented in Baker v. Carr, the 1962 ruling that in which the Supreme Court decided to enter said “thicket.”). Since those decisions, the Supreme Court has repeatedly declined to intervene in partisan redistricting cases, and the current John Roberts court is very much unlike the Warren Court in terms of ideology. The Supreme Court punted on a gerrymandering decision last year; since then, Brett Kavanaugh has replaced Anthony Kennedy on the court, arguably positioning the court further to the right.
In other words, and without knowing what the Supreme Court ultimately will say, we’d be surprised if this ends up being the court that intervenes against partisan redistricting.
So while we’d love to speculate in more details about how the maps in these four aforementioned states might specifically change in the event of remaps, such an exercise might very well be a waste of time.
Instead, let’s wait and see what the Supreme Court says.