Can Obama Put the House In Play in 2014?

by Stuart Rothenberg February 27, 2013 · 9:02 AM EST

Over the past few weeks, I have heard some people suggest that President Barack Obama’s strategy in pursuing his legislative agenda is more about creating issues for the 2014 midterm elections than about passing legislation.

Whether that is true, it leads to an obvious question: Is the president able to put the House back into Democratic hands, even if he wants to?

Electing a Democratic House next year would allow Obama to push a more unapologetically liberal agenda in his final two years, which he clearly would prefer. And it certainly sounds as if he will be more active during the 2014 midterms than he was in 2010, when his party saw a net loss of 63 House seats and fell into the minority.

He has already committed to holding at least 14 fundraisers for his party’s two congressional campaign committees, including eight for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which will lead the party’s charge to net at least 17 House seats in 2014. He’s also told DCCC Chairman Steve Israel of New York that he will help with candidate recruitment.

It’s far too early to know whether Democrats will have some, or even any, chance to win back the House next year; candidate recruitment has just begun, the number of retirements (and open seats) is uncertain and the president’s popularity more than 20 months from now is an open question. But we do know that history, as The New York Times’ Nate Silver pointed out in a column last November, suggests that Democrats will have a very tough road to 218 seats.

Going back to the election of 1862, the only time the president’s party gained as many as 10 seats was, well, never. Even in 1934, the best showing by the president’s party in House elections since the Civil War, the president’s party gained only nine seats.

In 1998, Democrats gained a handful of seats during Bill Clinton’s second midterm (five), and Republicans gained a somewhat larger handful during George W. Bush’s first midterm (eight). But in each case, unusual circumstances — post-impeachment fallout in 1998 and political fallout from the attacks of 9/11 (plus redistricting) in 2002 — help account for the atypical results.

So, while midterm elections have produced some huge swings well in excess of 17 seats recently — in 2010, 2006, 1994 and 1982, for example — all of those swings were in the favor of the party not holding the White House.

Of course, Obama can hope to break that historical “rule,” just as he broke the rule that no president since Franklin D. Roosevelt had won re-election with an unemployment rate over 7.2 percent. Historical rules seem to be falling regularly these days. But the demise of swing districts, documented by the Cook Political Report and by Silver, narrows the playing field dramatically.

Democrats are in the unenviable position of needing to win a large percentage of the small number of seats in play, which, in turn, allows the National Republican Congressional Committee to target its resources to defend those relatively few seats.

The president has proved to be a strong fundraiser, and he can surely raise money for the Democratic campaign committees and for individual candidates, if he so chooses. And that cash can help produce TV spots and direct-mail pieces, fund phone banks and help organize and mobilize volunteers. But lack of resources is not why Democrats lost the House in 2010 or why they did not get it back in 2012.

Maybe the biggest thing that Obama could do for his party is boost turnout among Democratic voter groups next year.

Midterm electorates tend to be whiter and older than presidential-year electorates, so turning out an electorate that looks more like 2012 (72 percent white, 19 percent 18- to 29-year-olds) than 2010 (78 percent white, 11 percent 18- to 29-year-olds) would help Democratic prospects.

But since the president will not be on the ballot next year, he will have to prove that his popularity can be transferred to other Democratic candidates or, more generally, to his party.

Of course, all of this assumes that Obama’s popularity will remain intact. He and his party seem to be outwitting the opposition at every turn and on almost every issue right now, but second presidential terms have a way of going downhill, and no one can be sure of the president’s standing 20 months from now.

I’ll be taking a much deeper dive into the DCCC’s recent memo about the fight for the House in the near future. But for now, it’s best to start the cycle by being skeptical that Democrats can add another 17 seats in the House, even if the president makes that a high priority.