Can Democrats Win the House in 2016?

by Stuart Rothenberg January 15, 2015 · 8:45 AM EST

Democrats have a better chance of winning control of the House next year than they did at any time in 2014. That’s true even though they now need to gain 30 seats, almost twice what they needed last year.

No, I’m not suggesting Democrats will win the House in 2016. Far from it. Right now, you’d need a magnifying glass, probably even a microscope, to find the party’s chances of taking control.

It’s pretty simple why you could rule out Democrats winning a majority in 2014, but can’t rule it out completely now.  The midterm dynamic made it virtually impossible for Democrats to win 17 seats. Only twice in the past 20 midterms has the president’s party gained House seats, and those two cases involved unusual circumstances (impeachment and the terrorist attacks of 2001) and single-digit gains.

Presidential election years are different. Either party can gain seats, depending on the particular circumstances of the cycle.

Not surprisingly, House results tend to reflect outcomes of presidential contests, with the party winning the White House adding House seats in 11 of the past 15 presidential years. So Democrats would need a big victory at the top of the ticket in 2016 to have any chance of major gains, let alone electing Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California as speaker again.

Democrats should make gains next year primarily because they suffered such serious losses in 2010 and 2014, leaving them with just 188 House members.

That is the party’s fewest number of House members to start a session of Congress since the 80th Congress in 1947, when the party also had 188 members, according to CQ Member data. (One House member, Vito Marcantonio, was a member of the American Labor Party, putting him to the left of Democrats in the chamber.)

If House Democrats were a stock, we would call them “oversold” because they now have fewer members than they should, considering the partisan fundamentals of the nation’s 435 districts.

In 2012, President Barack Obama carried 209 congressional districts, considerably fewer than Republican nominee Mitt Romney (226 districts), but 21 more than Democrats now hold in the House.

In the 2014 midterm elections, 26 Republicans won seats in districts carried by Obama during his re-election. In contrast, only five Democrats won last year in districts carried by Romney.

Given that ticket-splitting between presidential and House candidates reached a 92-year low of a mere 5.7 percent in 2012 (see Brookings’ Vital Statistics on Congress, Table 2-16), Democrats should have plenty of opportunities to win back seats that, all things being equal, they should hold.

Any district that voted for Obama in 2012 should be a top target for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2016.

Freshmen Republicans Rod Blum in Iowa’s 1st District (Obama got 56 percent there in 2012), John Katko in New York’s 24th District (Obama got 57 percent there in 2012) and Cresent Hardy in Nevada’s 4th District (Obama got 54 percent there in 2012) are obvious Democratic targets. So too are Republican Reps. Robert Dold of Illinois and Frank Guinta of New Hampshire, who were initially elected to Congress in 2010, defeated two years later and returned to the House two years after their defeats.

Two Republicans who have already announced their retirements and represent very competitive districts — Pennsylvania’s Michael G. Fitzpatrick and New York’s Chris Gibson — give Democrats good targets. And there are plenty of other House Republicans who need to watch their backs in 2016.

Presidential year turnout, which should bring more younger voters and minorities to the polls, should help Democratic candidates across the board, and while Obama won’t be irrelevant during the campaign, he isn’t likely to be quite the albatross around Democratic candidates’ necks that he was last year.

Of course, we don’t know how the two parties’ races for the White House will unfold, but the current divisions within the Republican Party surely present more dangers for the GOP during the nominating process. A weak or controversial nominee for the White House, for example, could affect the party’s brand and affect turnout, improving Democratic congressional prospects.

Obviously, there are so many uncertainties about the 2016 election that it’s impossible to know now how the fight for the House will be impacted by retirements, candidate recruitment, economic conditions, developments on Capitol Hill over the next two years and national security concerns.

As this cycle begins (and looking only at fundamentals), the most likely House outcome next year would be modest to substantial Democratic gains, ranging from as few as five to as many as 20 seats. Even at the upper limit of that range, the DCCC would still be a ways from the 30 seats the party needs for a majority.

In fact, 30 seats is a big number. Since 1950, gains that large have occurred six times during midterm elections, when partisan waves often appear, but only twice in presidential years, in 1964 and 1980. And that’s an important reason why the GOP starts as the clear favorite to retain control of the House in 2016.