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Democrats Might Need to Lose the White House to Win the House Majority

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

“It’s going to be awhile,” wrote The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza recently , summarizing Democrats’ chances of obtaining a majority in the House.  

But Democrats may not need years to dig out from their minority hole … if they are willing to surrender the White House in 2016.  

Cillizza, a former Roll Call politics reporter, lays out a plausible, multi-cycle path to the majority for Democrats:

“[D]emocrats would do well to see their fight to retake the House as a three-election mission. Narrow the Republican majority in 2016. Go absolutely all out at the state legislative and gubernatorial level in 2018 to win in the places where the lines will be drawn in 2021. Try to further narrow the margin in 2020. And hope 2022 is a midterm election that goes your way in terms of national dynamics.”

But that road will be complicated if Democrats hold the White House in 2016. The bottom line is that Democrats need a net gain of 30 seats for a House majority. They are likely to gain seats this cycle since they are at their lowest number (188) since 1947, but it’s premature to estimate precisely how many. There is still plenty of time for the cycle to develop, as Stuart Rothenberg wrote a couple weeks ago , but he set the very early line in the House at a Democratic gain of between five and 20 seats.  

“If Hillary Clinton, the widely-presumed Democratic nominee, won as sweeping a victory in 2016 as Obama did in 2008, it’s possible she could carry Democrats into a House majority. Heavy emphasis on possible,” Cillizza wrote.  

That scenario is possible but rare. Since World War II, a newly elected president has only seen gains over 30 seats once. Republicans gained 34 House seats in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected on the heels of four years of President Jimmy Carter. Democrats gained 37 House seats in 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson defeated polarizing Republican Barry Goldwater in Johnson’s first election since succeeding President John F. Kennedy.  

But it’s not clear what margin of victory is reasonable for Clinton, or any Democratic nominee, after eight years of a Democratic president. In 1988, George H.W. Bush was elected president after eight years of Reagan, and Democrats gained a pair of House seats. Bush was the first person to succeed someone from his own party in the White House via election dating back to 1928.  

Democrats probably need to gain 25 seats in 2016 to have a chance at the majority in 2018, with control of the White House.  

Of course if Republicans win the White House in 2016, then the House majority would nearly certainly be in play in the midterm elections. Republicans gained 63 House seats in Obama’s first midterm, so 30 or so for Democrats looks like a drop in the bucket.  

But over the last 100 years, the most House seats a President’s party has gained in a midterm election is nine, according to Vital Statistics on Congress , when Democrats increased their majority in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first midterm in 1934. Republicans gained eight seats in President George W. Bush’s first midterm in 2002, when Bush was popular in the wake of Sept. 11 and Republicans had some favorable, newly redrawn congressional maps. Democrats gained five seats in President Bill Clinton’s second midterm in 1998.  

With a Democratic president, her (or his) party would be more likely to lose House seats next year. The president’s party has lost an average of 30 House seats in midterm elections dating back to 1914. A Democratic president might also damage hopes of gaining control of state legislatures in order to control the next round of redistricting. Presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton lost hundreds of state legislative seats in their tenures , so it would be up to the next president to buck the trend.  

Democrats can take some solace that one of the most important cycles before redistricting will be 2020: a presidential election when turnout should be more Democratic. But the most recent race after one party controlled the White House for 12 years resulted in Republicans losing the presidency and gaining 10 House seats in 1992. Yes, it’s a small sample size.  

It may sound like Democrats are in a semi-permanent minority in the House. But as we know from the past couple of decades, just when the conversation about political permanence begins, the majority party oversteps its bounds and gives the minority a window (sometimes a floodgate) of opportunity to come roaring back.  

Correction, 10:40 p.m. An earlier version of this post misstated Republican gains in the House in 1992.  


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