Skip links

House 2016: Gridlock ahead for a possible Clinton administration?

If Hillary Clinton wins the White House, there’s a decent chance that she will achieve a historic first, but not the one everybody talks about.

Clinton could become the first Democratic president in the party’s nearly two century-long history* to never control the House of Representatives while she’s in office.

That’s not a firm prediction, but it is what history strongly suggests, particularly if she is elected next year without a House majority.

Democrats currently have a fairly large deficit in the House: The Republican majority is 247-188**, meaning that Democrats would need to win 30 seats next year to take control. Let’s assume that Clinton is elected but that Democrats do not win control of the House. If that happens, Clinton would have at most three more opportunities to preside over a Democratic House takeover — a midterm (2018), a second presidential election (2020), and a second midterm (2022), assuming she wins reelection.

Midterm elections almost always go poorly for the president’s party. After the GOP’s 2014 midterm victories, which added 13 seats to the party’s already impressive House majority, the president’s party has now lost ground in the House in 36 of 39 midterm elections dating back to the Civil War. Unusual circumstances were at play in all three exceptions: 1934 (Franklin Roosevelt’s first midterm against the discredited Republicans), 1998 (Bill Clinton’s second midterm, when his party benefited from a great economy and GOP overreach on impeaching the popular incumbent president), and 2002 (George W. Bush’s first midterm, conducted under the shadow of 9/11). The presidential party’s gains in all three of these years were in the single digits.

Perhaps a President Hillary Clinton could preside over a historic midterm breakthrough for her party, but there’s little reason to expect it far in advance. Not only does history advise against it, but so do the Democrats’ current problems turning out their younger, more diverse electorate in non-presidential years.

That leaves 2020, when a President Clinton would try to win a second term and a fourth straight Democratic term in the White House. Reelected presidents almost always gain seats in the House, at least in the 13 elections since 1900 when a reelected chief executive won a second term (or when a deceased president’s successor wins what would be his first elected term, like Lyndon Johnson in 1964). In those elections, the president’s party netted an average of 19 House seats.

Let’s say Democrats net 19 seats in 2016 and 19 more in 2020, which given the current maps and overall political outlook in the House would be two very successful elections. That’s a 38-seat net gain, or eight more than they need to win the House. However, there’s a midterm to be held in between those elections, and Democrats could only afford to lose eight seats, no more, to control the House in 2021 under this scenario. In only nine of the last 39 midterms has the president’s party lost eight or fewer seats. Again, one can concoct scenarios whereby a President Hillary Clinton controls the House during her term. They are just ones that take a tremendous leap of faith to predict.

Of the 13 elections featuring reelected presidents referenced above, the president’s party generally gained seats, but control of the House did not change during those elections. Either the president’s party retained the House, or the president’s party stayed in the minority. But there’s one exception, 1948, which merits further examination.

Harry Truman’s smashing victory and his party’s 75-seat net House gain is the most recent precedent for a president whose party is reelected to the White House also flipping control of the House in the same election, and Truman’s argument against a “do-nothing Congress” is one that Democrats could attempt to replicate either in 2016 or in 2020. But the history is more complicated.

The Republican House (and Senate) didn’t “do nothing” while in power; they actually did something incredibly significant during their two years controlling Congress between 1947 and 1949. Over Truman’s veto, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which forbade closed shops and also opened the door to individual states passing “right-to-work” laws, which allow workers who are not members of a union to avoid paying dues in a unionized workplace. Taft-Hartley remains quite relevant today: Earlier this year, Wisconsin became the nation’s 25th right-to-work state.

Robert Remini, in his official history of the House, cites Taft-Hartley as a key reason for Truman’s upset victory and the Democrats’ retaking of the House. Taft-Hartley “convinced labor in the big cities that the Republicans did not welcome their support.” Remember, close to a third of the workforce was unionized back then; now only a little more than a tenth is.

Generally speaking (and to oversimplify), when the House changes hands, it’s because of a negative reaction to the party in control of the White House, and those changes often happen in midterm years. 1948 provides a rare counterexample of a reaction against the congressional party in a presidential year, but the congressional party did something noteworthy — it passed a divisive piece of very important legislation (over a presidential veto) that contributed to the unusual outcome.

Maybe something like that would happen during Clinton’s first term — the GOP, after all, is unlikely to react any better to her potential presidency than it has to Barack Obama’s — but, again, the Republicans doing something so provocative to prompt a massive House wave against them in Clinton’s reelection year is not guaranteed or even probable. And any backlash that voters exhibit when going to the polls in 2016 seems likelier to be directed against Obama and his party than against the Republicans, given the president’s sub-50% approval ratings.

There are of course plenty of important reasons to hold the White House even in times of split government — lifetime judicial appointments and wielding the immense power of the federal bureaucracy are but two perks — but voters and the media can question whether Clinton will accomplish any more than Obama has with divided government. (A Republican elected to the White House, on the other hand, might have unified control of the government, although that president will be without 60 votes in the Senate and thus will be hamstrung to a large extent.)

One other point: It’s possible that the next best opportunity Democrats will have to take the House is 2022, which is after new state congressional maps go into effect in most states following the decennial census. Democrats are using the next census as a rallying cry for voters to focus more on statewide and state legislative elections, whose victors determine new district lines in most places. This is a worthy goal for Democrats. However, if Clinton is in the White House, is it really reasonable to expect that Democrats will do very well in 2018, when most governorships (and some state legislative seats) are decided, or in 2020’s state legislative elections? Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures found that the president’s party has lost net state legislative seats in 27 of the last 29 midterm elections, and Democrats performed better in gubernatorial elections while President Bush was in office than when President Obama has been in office. Democrats could benefit from legislative elections conducted in 2020’s presidential year, but remember that the next election would be 2022 — a midterm — where the historical midterm trend might dull any edge Democrats would get from improved maps.

In other words, it seems something of a pipe dream that the gears of redistricting would swing significantly toward Democrats while they occupy the White House.

The rhythms of national elections strongly suggest that the president’s party pays a penalty for controlling the White House. It would be foolish to say that under no circumstance could the Democrats win the House back with Clinton as president — strange things happen in politics. But history shows that the odds of Democrats ever controlling the House under a President Clinton are not great.

With that, let’s take a more detailed look at next year’s race for House control. It might be the best opportunity Democrats have to win the House for the next several cycles.

Crystal Ball House ratings update

There’s a less sweeping thing one could say about Clinton and the House that concerns only the 2016 election: She could be the first Democratic president to begin her term in office without control of the House (thanks to Andrew Levine on Twitter for pointing this out to us).

House handicappers, including the Crystal Ball, have a hard time envisioning a scenario in which the Democrats win back the House in 2016, even if Clinton wins the presidency. That’s not a 100% prediction, but one might say it’s in the 80%-90% range. The Democrats are at a low ebb in the House and need to net 30 seats to take it. Such is life when a party has suffered through two debilitating midterms (in 2010 and 2014) sandwiched around a presidential election (2012) where it only netted eight House seats.

There’s also the longer-term, structural problems that Democrats face in the House: The party’s voters are more geographically concentrated, so the party “wastes” votes in House races, and as Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster pointed out in a recent Crystal Ball piece, Democrats just aren’t winning conservative-leaning districts the way they used to, which limits their list of true House targets. (As recently as after the 2008 election, Democrats held 49 seats won by John McCain; they now hold just five seats won by Mitt Romney in 2012.) Republicans also controlled redistricting in many places, and so most key states feature congressional maps that are drawn better for the GOP than for Democrats. As mentioned above, Democrats could perhaps eat into these advantages by the time of the next regular redistricting, which will be in place for the 2022 midterm.

However, there’s a chance that some of the current House maps will change before 2022 — or even before 2016.

The Supreme Court is currently deciding an important case about the way Arizona draws its map. As the result of a statewide ballot issue in 2000, an independent commission draws the lines, and the map it produced after the 2010 census was a decent one for Democrats: They currently hold four of the nine seats in the state, which would not be the case if the Republican-controlled state legislature drew the lines. However, the state legislature is arguing that the Constitution reserves the right to draw districts for legislators, so it’s possible that Arizona’s voter-approved system will be thrown out. If so, the legislature could draw a new map that probably would make swing district Rep. Martha McSally (R, AZ-2) much less vulnerable and also give Republicans a good chance to win two Democratic-held swing seats, the now-open AZ-1 and AZ-9, held by Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D).

AZ-1 is open because Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D) announced earlier this week that she would challenge Sen. John McCain (R) next year, assuming McCain survives his primary (Democrats surely hope he doesn’t). It’s possible that Arizona Democrats are anticipating an unfavorable ruling and that Kirkpatrick jumped into the Senate race because of it, but with the Supreme Court one never knows. Sinema might also run for the Senate if the legislature gets to remap the state. At the same time, the aforementioned districts might not all be dramatically redrawn even in the case of a ruling that invalidates the current map. In any case, Kirkpatrick is a good campaigner and a solid recruit for Senate Democrats, but a potentially costly loss for House Democrats.

For the time being, the AZ-1 rating moves from Leans Democratic to Toss-up under the current lines. This is now the likeliest Republican pickup in the country, but it’s also roughly a coin flip, just like the other two Democratic-held seats we list as Toss-ups, the open FL-18 (which Rep. Patrick Murphy is leaving to pursue a Senate run) and the seat held by Rep. Brad Ashford (D, NE-2).

It’s possible that a Supreme Court ruling could eventually affect other states, most prominently California, where the Democratic-controlled legislature could replace a commission-drawn map with a Democratic-drawn one. So perhaps Democratic losses in Arizona would be offset by Republican losses in the Golden State. There are also unrelated, separate legal questions about House maps in Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia. The safest bet is that any changes to districts in those states will be modest, but it’s hard to say with any certainty what might happen. For instance, one of the possible reasons that Rep. David Jolly (R, FL-13) has inserted himself into the conversation for a Senate run next year is that he might need an escape route if his Tampa Bay-area district is made more Democratic as the result of an ongoing redistricting battle.

Beyond redistricting, other members of the House might run for the Senate, like Reps. Mike Coffman (R, CO-6) and Joe Heck (R, NV-3). Both of them represent swingy districts narrowly won by President Obama in 2012. They are favored if they run for reelection, but both seats would be Toss-ups if they become open. Invariably, other members will run for other offices or retire. One prominent incumbent that both sides are watching is Rep. Collin Peterson (D, MN-7), who has the most Republican district held by any Democrat. Peterson recently said “I’m running until I’m not,” which doesn’t really rule out his possible retirement. If he wants another term he is likely to get it, given his local appeal. We’re moving him from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic with the assumption that he’s running for another term. If he retires, Republicans probably become favored to win the seat.

Two of the top incumbent targets for Democrats, freshmen Reps. Carlos Curbelo (R, FL-26) and Will Hurd (R, TX-23), both had impressive fundraising quarters. But Democrats have already found recruits against both. Annette Taddeo (D) is running against Curbelo. While she has lost a number of races, including as Charlie Crist’s (D) running mate in the close 2014 gubernatorial race, the district appears to be trending Democratic: Not only did Obama do better there than he did nationally, but the Crist/Taddeo ticket won the district by four points last year, according to calculations by Miles Coleman. (Coleman is a sharp analyst who is writing an excellent series on congressional-level results in 2014 statewide elections at Ace of Spades HQ Decision Desk, a right-leaning site that tracks results on election nights.) Curbelo is a formidable incumbent but this race moves from Leans Republican to Toss-up. Hurd, meanwhile, faces a rematch against former Rep. Pete Gallego (D), which pushes this race from Leans Republican to Toss-up as well. Democrats are hoping for better turnout and an improved national environment in both districts.

Self-inflicted mistakes have drawn an unwelcome spotlight to Rep. Steve Knight (R, CA-25), who took over for long-time Rep. Buck McKeon (R) in a Southern California seat last cycle. Knight only raised $28,000 in the first quarter, a sorry total, and he had an embarrassing encounter captured on video with a protester last month that featured some mild profanity that we will refrain from reprinting here. The district was won 50%-48% by Romney in 2012 but is probably more Republican-leaning than that result suggests. Yet Knight needs to get his act together and the GOP is worried that he won’t. We’re moving the race from Safe Republican to Likely Republican.

Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings changes

We continue to believe that the likeliest outcome in 2016 is that the Democrats will make modest gains in the House, meaning netting somewhere in the single digits. However, it should not be a shock if Republicans — helped by a strong presidential showing — add a seat or two to their majority, which already is the biggest the party has held since the 1928 elections. They have a few credible targets, including the newly-open AZ-1, and are not guaranteed at this early point to lose any of their current seats, although the Toss-up districts held by Reps. Rod Blum (R, IA-1) and Cresent Hardy (R, NV-4) are probably less than 50-50 to remain Republican, and Democrats have a number of other credible opportunities to pick up seats.

Overall, the GOP majority seems secure and, as discussed above, the hypothetical election of Hillary Clinton as president could serve to make that majority even more secure for several elections to come.

Table 2: 2016 Crystal Ball House ratings

*Some consider Andrew Johnson, who became president after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, a Democrat, and Republicans controlled the House for the entirety of Johnson’s four years in office. However, we’re considering Johnson a Republican (or, at the very least, not a Democrat) because he was elected on a unity ticket with Lincoln as the National Union Party nominee, which was GOP in all but name in an election conducted during the Civil War. So long as one doesn’t consider Johnson a Democratic president — and we don’t — every Democratic chief executive going back to Andrew Jackson held control of the U.S. House for at least a portion of his term.

**There are currently two House vacancies, in IL-18 and MS-1, but we’re assuming that Republicans will hold these strongly Republican-leaning seats in upcoming special elections. Therefore, we’re saying they have 247 House seats even though they technically only have 245 right now.