Are There Really Fewer Competitive House Districts Than Ever Before?

by Nathan L. Gonzales September 4, 2013 · 9:08 PM EDT

According to conventional wisdom, there are fewer competitive House races than ever before thanks to partisan gerrymandering. But a closer look at the past 10 elections shows that the 2014 batch of races isn’t far from other non-wave cycles.

There are currently 49 House seats rated as competitive by the Rothenberg Political Report. That is down from the 68 seats rated as competitive prior to the 2012 elections and less than half of the 109 competitive seats in 2010.

But it is closer to the three elections that began the previous decade, when there wasn’t a national wave. In 2000 and 2002, 54 races were rated as competitive. In 2004, at the same point in the redistricting cycle as this year’s races, there were just 38 competitive seats.

But in 2006 and 2008, more than 60 races were listed as competitive even though the district lines hadn’t changed (except in a couple states that went through mid-decade redistricting). That means that while partisan redistricting factors into the relative small number of competitive districts, the national mood is a big factor in determining the size of the House playing field.

Democrats gained more than 50 seats total in the 2006 and 2008 elections in a repudiation of President George W. Bush. In 2010, the House playing field ballooned to 109 seats and Republicans gained 63 seats in response to President Barack Obama’s first years in office.

With more than a year to go before the midterm elections, a partisan wave doesn’t appear to be developing. And that is part of the reason for a lower number of competitive races.

The fewer number of competitive states and seats also means fewer places to spend money.

“But in this election, certain races will be even more intensely bombarded with outside cash, due to a shrunken House playing field and the high-stakes fight over the Senate, which Democrats control only narrowly,” according to Eliza Newlin Carney’s piece on concentrated campaign spending ($) in the new issue of “CQ Weekly.”

So even though there is plenty of attention on month-to-month candidate and campaign committee fundraising, the first- and second-tier races are not likely to be won or lost because of money.