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Could this thing be headed back to the left in January of 2015?
Why 'will' and 'can't' are dangerous words in understanding the battle for the House in 2014

Perhaps it is merely a sign of how desperate political junkies are to talk about anything that is not debt ceiling/shutdown related. Or perhaps it is a sign that those same junkies are dying to see what repercussions, if any, exist from the debt ceiling/shutdown contretemps.

Either way, it is pretty darned rare that a series of House polls, conducted 13 months out, would garner as much attention as the spate of polls released last week by PPP/MoveOn received.

Those polls, conducted in two dozen districts currently held by Republican incumbents, found that the Democratic target of 17 pickups is potentially within reach, based on how those incumbents perform against generic Democratic opposition. As most election junkies know, most polling experts have fairly reasonable quibbles about the use of a generic opponent. That said, at 13 months out, and even the better Democratic recruits remaining relatively unknown, that might be a decent barometer of those Republicans and their current state of political affairs than a true trial heat, which at this point might give them an artificially large lead built solely on name recognition. In other words, while it doesn't purely have predictive value (these Republicans will not be running against a "generic Democrat" in 2014), that doesn't mean they should necessarily be ignored.

The reaction to the PPP/MoveOn polls has essentially fallen into two camps:

  • "This doesn't mean squat. The Republicans are still a virtual guarantee to be in the House majority in 2015.
  • This means everything. The shutdown has completely eroded public confidence in the Republicans. Speaker Pelosi. Get used to it. Again."

My sense? Both of these reactions are a bit overcooked. Anyone who puts Republican control of the House at greater than 95 percent is being unduly optimistic on behalf of the elephants, I would say. But anyone who thinks that the Republicans have pissed away the majority over a year before the midterms is ignoring history.

The PPP/MoveOn polls grabbed a lot of attention, but those data are not in isolation. And, taken together, the numbers lead me to think, at least for now, that the question of which party controls the House after next year is quite a bit less apparent than most analysts suspect.

What's more: I'd make the argument that only a willfully blinded GOP cheerleader would try to seriously argue that the House forecast for the Republican majority in 2014 is not worse now than it was six months ago.

Follow me past the jump for a critical look at the PPP/MoveOn poll analysis, and a "best guess" about the current state of play.

A representative sample of the "this doesn't mean anything" crowd was a piece earlier this week by The New Republic's Nate Cohn.

He pooh-poohs Democratic prospects on a couple of different grounds.

The first of those grounds is one that should, indeed, slow the roll of any "Speaker Pelosi" arguments:


The preponderance of undecided voters supported Romney and their incumbent congressperson last November, so there’s good reason to assume that Republicans will consolidate their support in the absence of a strong challenger.
This is easily the best argument Cohn makes, because there is plenty of history to support it. Sure, it is possible that the Republicans could become so toxic that they could repel even supporters of Mitt Romney in legitimate quantities. But, on balance, it seems more likely that those somewhat dismayed Republicans will simply come home, particularly in a close election where Democratic seizure of the House becomes a possibility.

And, ultimately, a reluctant vote counts the same as an enthusiastic vote, as long as it gets cast.

Another of Cohn's pillars for his argument is certainly defensible, though I think the case can be made that recent history undermines its impact:

There’s a huge problem with the PPP survey: It pits named Republican incumbents against generic Democrats. In many of these districts, Democrats don’t have challengers capable of taking advantage of whatever favorable conditions may exist. Even if the Democrats do recruit decent challengers, they still might not do as well as a generic Democrat.

The recruiting issue is one that even PPP's own Tom Jensen conceded could be an issue. It's a cliché, but a valid one: You can't beat someone with no one. Without naming names (I have no taste for demeaning the candidates that did make the bid), Democrats had to kick themselves for the number of seats where they had ill-funded and little-known candidates that notched between 40-47 percent of the vote. Identifying excellent prospects for pickup, and getting candidates in those races who can take advantage, is one of the primary tasks of the DCCC. And there is little doubt that it has an important job to do in the coming months.

However, there are two pretty big caveats to Cohn's argument here, as well.

For one thing, it would appear to me that those 24 districts were not chosen in a vacuum. Democrats have recruited candidates in many of them already. If you look at the early DCCC lists of candidates, and the districts that are listed in the PPP/MoveOn poll, there is an ample amount of crossover. Indeed, if you look at the DCCC's ActBlue page for their list of "Jumpstart" candidates (challengers in vulnerable GOP seats), you will find that of the sixteen candidates listed there, all but two are running in districts that were polled by PPP/MoveOn. To put it another way, the Democrats are already running DCCC-promoted candidates (many of whom are already fundraising at a more than respectable clip) in more than half of the districts polled by PPP/MoveOn. What's more, Democrats have fairly known quantities that have announced in several other of those districts (Jim Mowrer in Iowa comes to mind). I find only a handful of districts where the Democrats are either still waiting on a candidate, or are still saddled with Some Dude.

Furthermore, if a partisan wave (or, in this case, perhaps undertow would be a better term) does develop, the "quality" of the opposition matters a lot less. I mean, let's be honest, is anyone going to argue that Blake Farenthold and Joe Walsh were rock-star political candidates? In 2010, did that matter?

Cohn's third point, one echoed to an extent by Huffpost/Pollster head Mark Blumenthal, is that PPP has been this way before, in the last election cycle, and issued numbers that wound up far rosier than the final outcome.

It is something Jensen even acknowledged in a follow-up with Blumenthal, and cited the recruiting issue as a primary issue. It is also a caution that was issued when PPP released a second round of GOP House polls on Friday:

To be sure, as Stuart Rothenberg and others have noted over the last week, these polls are a snapshot of opinion at one point in time and hardly guarantee electoral outcomes 13 months from now. Democrats must recruit strong candidates and run effective campaigns in individual districts if they are to capitalize on the vulnerability revealed by these surveys. And they must maintain a strong national advantage to net 17 seats and win back the House. But given these results, and other national surveys that show more Americans now believe in Sasquatch than approve of Republicans, one would have to almost be willfully ignorant of the facts to argue that a wave election in which Democrats retake the House of Representatives is out of reach.
That last sentence, to me, is the key, and it has to date been one of the more frustrating things about the collective shrug most in Pundit-land have given to the 2014 elections.

If the argument were that a Democratic reclaiming of the House of Representatives was merely difficult, given how the 2010 redistricting constricted the playing field and picking up 17 seats is a tougher task than it used to be, that would be one thing. Indeed, there is no shortage of validity to that argument.

But, it is the general sense that a Democratic majority is basically an impossibility that seems odd. In what is, by and large, an excellent critical piece by The Guardian's Harry Enten on the PPP/MoveOn polls, he prefaces his analysis with this statement:

Outside a few diehards, no analyst gives Democrats much of a chance to take back the House of Representatives. It would take at least 17 seats for the House to change hands.
My quibble with that is that there is no shortage of evidence that the GOP brand is absolutely lower than low right now. Generic ballot tests of recent vintage are as lopsided as we've seen in quite some time. It seems a bit much to dismiss anyone who sees legitimate prospects for a Democratic takeover as a "diehard" lacking in objectivity.

At this point, I think there is a clear, and objective, case that the Democrats have a realistic shot at either seizing a narrow House majority, or doing serious damage to the Republican advantage in the House.

But, it must be said, anyone who thinks that this is somehow a foregone conclusion is probably setting themselves up for disappointment.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given my own political preferences, the bulk of my Twitter feed is made up of folks whose political views run to the left-of-center. And those folks were positively giddy this week when the PPP/MoveOn polls were released.

It is tempting to think that the GOP intransigence on the budget, which has contributed to their abysmal poll numbers, is a guaranteed golden ticket to the majority. But it's not. At least, not yet.

There are a few things for the excessively optimistic to bear in mind:

  • While the Republican Party brand name is lower than dog poop (literally, if you've read the national PPP poll from this week), it is not like the Democratic Party is in clover. While the Democrats are certainly weathering the storm better than the GOP, their collective poll numbers are not stellar, either. As an example, look where the net favorability ratings for the Democrats stand now, versus the two Democratic wave elections of recent memory. In October 2005, the Democrats were a net plus-16. In late September of 2007, the Democrats were a net plus-10. In a Gallup survey earlier this month (the earlier surveys were also Gallup, so an apples-to-apples comparison applies), the Democrats were a net minus-6.
  • Now, the counter to that, which is more than fair, is that the GOP's numbers are way worse than they were in 2005 or 2007. Furthermore, there is precedent for a political party with net-negative approval (the GOP in 2010) winning a massive number of seats.

    But the circumstances are different than they were in 2005 or 2007. The Democrats had much more low-hanging fruit in those cycles, and the GOP had two waves worth of low-hanging fruit to pluck in 2010. The pundits are not wrong here: There are far fewer obvious candidates for either party to flip than there have been in previous cycles. What that means, unlike in previous cycles, is that to claim a majority, the Democrats are going to have to win an extremely high percentage of the competitive races in order to win a majority.

  • Thirteen months is a long, long time. And voters have proven in the past that they are capable of having frustratingly short memories. Helpfully, in 2011, Mark Blumenthal took a look into the past at how voters responded to the 1995 Gingrich/GOP shutdown. The results should be a cautionary tale for optimistic Democrats. Among the data points he cited: the shutdown gave the Democrats a yawning gap in the Congressional ballot test (Democrats +8) within a month or so after the shutdown. But what happened on Election Day 1996 (with a larger turnout than we are liable to see in 2014)? The Democratic edge evaporated, and the Democrats picked up about half of the seats that they needed to reclaim the House, which was held by the Republicans by a roughly similar margin to where the GOP edge is today.

So, when Democrats are buoyed by individual polls, or by analysis such as this piece by Princeton's Sam Wang, a cautionary note must be struck. No one gets elected 13 months before an election. And there is recent history that suggests that major gains, or a seizure of the chamber, is far from guaranteed.

So, what is the state of play? As I said earlier, I agree wholeheartedly with the final sentence of that PPP analysis of their most recent dozen House polls. You'd have to be willfully ignorant to entirely dismiss the prospects that there may be a wave election in our future. But the key word here, and one Democrats would be wise not to forget, is may. Individual data points like the PPP/MoveOn numbers look good, but those Republican opponents won't be running against "someone else" come November 2014. What's more, the assumption that the GOP will linger in the cellar is just that—an assumption. They could well find the fairway between now and 13 months from now (though they show no sign of that to date).

If I had to quantify it, I'd put the Democratic odds are reclaiming the House at about 25-35 percent ... but rising. Which is not as bleak a forecast as many in the pundit class remain insistent upon, but nowhere near as optimistic as many Democrats have become over the past month.