Elections

Parsing Conor Lamb’s Narrow Victory

Conor Lambs speaks to reporters at an election-night rally in Canonsburg, Pa., March 13, 2018. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
Unless Trump’s approval rating climbs, get ready to say, ‘Speaker Nancy Pelosi.’

Democrat Conor Lamb’s victory in the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district has people wondering whether the Republicans can control the House in November. PA-18, after all, went to Trump by 20 points in the 2016 election, so if Lamb could defeat Republican Rick Saccone, even narrowly, that must mean trouble, right?

Indeed, it does. History suggests that Republicans face a monumental struggle to hold the lower chamber of Congress. Yet the warning signs have been present for so long that Lamb’s win doesn’t tell us much that we didn’t already know.

To put matters bluntly, it all gets back to Donald Trump. Midterm elections have become referenda on the president of the United States, and there are enough House seats potentially in play each cycle that an unpopular president will probably cause his party to lose the House. Trump has been unpopular since he took the oath of office, which is why the GOP is in so much trouble.

For generations after the Civil War, the House of Representatives basically reflected the durable North–South divide: The North voted mostly Republican, and the South voted overwhelmingly Democratic. From 1874 to 1894, the House was competitive between the Democrats and Republicans because enough Northern seats were in play. Democrats could not win a majority of the North, but they could win enough that, combined with their stranglehold on the South, they maintained a majority in the House. But after the Panic of 1893 and the ensuing recession that hit the country very hard the North shifted toward the Republicans, where it more or less stayed until the Great Depression (the progressive decade of the 1910s being the exception to the rule).

At that point, the North became more or less split between Democrats and Republicans, while the South stood loyally with Democrats. That gave Democrats their 40-year majority in control of the House of Representatives, from 1954 until 1994. Yet as the post-war period wore on, these regional divisions gave way to the more ideological politics that we see today. Indeed, the notion of a North–South divide does not make nearly as much sense as it used to, unless framed in terms of race, ethnicity, religiosity, and socioeconomic status — in other words, the same factors that drive politics in most regions. With the South slipping out of the Democrats’ grasp — slowly at first, then suddenly in 1992–94—there are now enough seats in play for both sides to win the House.

The result is a House of Representatives that more accurately reflects public opinion, which in the Wilsonian age of president-as-superman, hinges largely on views of the commander in chief. The results have been remarkably predictable over the last quarter century, which is when the South basically stopped being loyal to the Democrats.

The pre-election Gallup poll in the 1994 midterms had Bill Clinton registering 45 percent approval, and Republicans won 230 House seats out of 435. The pre-election Gallup poll in the 2006 midterms had George W. Bush registering 39 percent approval, and Democrats won 233 seats. The pre-election Gallup poll in the 2010 midterms had Barack Obama at 44 percent approval, and Republicans won 242 seats. On the other hand, Bush was popular in 2002, and his party won a handful of House seats. Bill Clinton was popular in 1998, so his party won a handful of seats. But Obama was unpopular in 2014, so Democrats lost about a dozen seats.

Note that Bush in 2006 had a lower job approval rating than Clinton in 1994 or Obama in 2010, but Republicans did relatively better in terms of House seats held. That might have something to do with the distribution of white Republican voters, who — unlike minority Democrats — are not required by the 1982 Voting Rights Act amendments to be packed into minority-majority districts. On the other hand, it could be a fluke due to a small sample size.

Right now, the Gallup poll has Trump at just 39 percent approval, right where Bush was in 2006. Factor in better gerrymanders for Republicans now than in 2006, and its relatively efficient distribution of voters, and Republicans might be able to do a shade better than what these numbers suggest. But they might not. And remember: Democrats only need to get to 218 seats to control the House of Representatives. They don’t need 30 new seats; they need only 23.

The thing that can save the Republican House majority is an uptick in Trump’s job-approval numbers.

History suggests that the thing that can save the Republican majority is an uptick in Trump’s job-approval numbers. Gallup has him at 39 percent right now, and the average of all polls puts him around 41 percent, or thereabouts. If he can push that number up to 45 percent, I’d say the GOP has a fighting chance at the majority.

But if he doesn’t, I would get used to saying “Speaker Nancy Pelosi” once again. The results probably will not be as bad as these special elections suggest — where Democrats are moving the needle by ten to 20 points. During the midterm this fall, the Democratic enthusiasm advantage should fade a bit as more regular voters show up, and as the ability to focus on a single district at once will no longer be in play. But with Trump’s approval at 39 to 41 percent, Democrats are favored take the House.

Jay Cost — Jay Cost is the author of The Price of Greatness: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the Creation of American Oligarchy.

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