ANALYSIS — Political prognosticating has taken its share of lumps over the years. Particularly after Donald Trump’s surprise victory in 2016, there’s been palpable skepticism about election projections.
So it’s fair to ask: How helpful is analysis a year away from the midterms? As it turns out, quite a bit.
A look back at political analysis over the last couple of decades shows that, even a year out from the election, it’s possible to accurately identify the direction of an election cycle, even if the magnitude or specifics are unclear.
That’s great news for Republicans, who are looking at anything from a good to a great 2022 considering the positive historical trend of midterm elections for the party out of the White House and the current political environment. And it’s bad news for Democrats hoping for a dramatic rebound next year.
In November 2019, I laid out four potential scenarios for 2020, in order of likelihood. A year out from the elections, the most likely outcome was Democrats winning the White House, Republicans holding the Senate and Democrats maintaining control of the House. That came within one Senate seat of being the case.
While the second most likely scenario (a Democratic sweep) ended up being the final result, it was in the same general direction of the first one. It wasn’t as if, a year out from the election, Republicans were riding high and then things shifted. The elections maintained their trajectory for 12 months, even through a pandemic.
That 2019 analysis of a Democratic sweep also included an ominous warning for Democrats three years before the midterms: “Such a sweep would have Democrats riding high and the media pronouncing the end of the Republican Party. While the election would be more of a repudiation of Trump, Democrats could declare a legislative mandate for their most polarizing policies. … That would set up a potential backlash election in 2022 allowing the GOP to bounce back.”
And that’s where we sit today. Republicans are well-positioned to win back the House and the Senate, although the latter is more difficult.
“Democrats haven’t struggled to recruit candidates, but this week’s results in Virginia should encourage any wavering House challengers to get off the sidelines,” Inside Elections wrote in November 2017. “Even so, it remains unclear whether Tuesday’s sweeping victories portend a national electoral wave next year. Democrats are poised to gain seats, but the most likely outcome ranges from a modest gain in the teens to a more dramatic political wave.”
Indeed, it was the wave that developed as Democrats saw a net gain of 41 seats a year later and regained the House majority. Once again, even though the magnitude of the cycle wasn’t identified a year out, the conditions for a wave were apparent.
The Senate picture was always a bit murkier considering the GOP lean of the battleground states. “The Senate is still less likely to flip control than the House, but Democrats have an easier path after Alabama,” Inside Elections said in January 2018. This was the right sentiment considering Republicans gained two seats and held their majority.
“A year out from the 2016 elections, control of the Senate is up for grabs,” Inside Elections wrote in November 2015. “Based on the blue and purple tinge of the states up this cycle, and presidential election turnout drawing out more Democratic friendly voters, Democrats are likely to pick up seats. But there is a broad range of outcomes from minimal net change to significant Democratic gains.” A year later, Democrats gained two Senate seats.
“Democrats are likely to pick up [House] seats but gains depend on presidential nominees,” read an analysis in early January 2016, still 10 months from the elections. I looked at that January because we haven’t always written projections exactly one year out. “At this stage, the potential House outcomes range from Democratic gains of a couple of seats to a couple dozen or more seats, based in part on the volatility at the top of the ticket,” according to Inside Elections. In the end, Democrats gained six House seats.
Once again, there was more than an inkling about what would happen nearly three years out from the next midterm elections. “The margin after the 2016 elections is also important because 2018 will likely be a challenging election for the party in control of the White House. … [If] the GOP wins the White House, 2018 could be a difficult year for the party.” And that’s what happened.
“A ‘typical’ midterm currently seems to be shaping up for next year,” Stuart Rothenberg wrote in CQ Roll Call in early December 2013. “That means that the president will be a drag on his party’s nominees in competitive contests and Democrats will spend much of their time on the defensive, trying to convince voters that they should not base their votes on their dissatisfaction with [Barack] Obama’s performance.”
“The current trajectory of the midterms now strongly favors the GOP,” Rothenberg added. A year out from the midterm elections, Republicans were projected to gain three to six Senate seats, and “a small net House gain” was materializing. In the end, the GOP gained a whopping nine Senate seats and 13 House seats. Once again, the very early projections were off in the magnitude, not the direction.
This cycle had a more pronounced difference between the year-out analysis and the final results, although it was in a cycle with minimal changes overall.
In November 2011, the most likely outcome was a GOP gain of two to four Senate seats, according to what was then the Rothenberg Political Report. Democrats ended up gaining two Senate seats, coupled with Obama’s reelection.
The early House outlook was more muddled because it was a redistricting cycle. Sound familiar? Close to half of the districts hadn’t been redrawn and finalized in November 2011. A year later, Democrats gained eight House seats, recapturing a few of the 63 they lost in 2010.
A year after Obama’s historic election in 2008, it was becoming clear Democrats were going to have problems in his first midterm.
“Substantial Republican gains now look almost inevitable, with net Democratic losses likely to exceed a dozen,” read the Rothenberg Political Report in mid-December 2009. “While Democratic control of the House is not yet at risk, losses of 15-20 seats are likely, and that target range could well grow with additional Democratic retirements and voter anger.”
GOP prospects kept ticking upward over the next year to a final, pre-election projection of a 55- to 65-seat gain for the party. Republicans ended up with a net pickup of 63 seats and recaptured the House majority they had lost four years earlier.
It was a similar story on the Senate side, but on a smaller scale. The tide had started to shift in favor of the GOP. “With the landscape changing noticeably over the summer, Democrats can no longer assume that they will have a net gain of seats in next year’s midterm elections,” the Rothenberg Report stated in October 2009. A year before the midterms, the most likely outcome ranged from a GOP gain of two seats to a Democratic gain of two seats. Republicans ended up with a net gain of six Senate seats in what was as close to a textbook wave election as it gets.
After getting swamped in the 2006 elections, Republicans were hoping to bounce back and turn the page from unpopular, outgoing President George W. Bush. But by November 2007, it was pretty clear that wasn’t going to happen.
“At this point, a net Democratic gain looks extremely likely. But for Congress-watchers, it makes a huge difference if Democrats gain a seat or two — or six or seven,” read the Rothenberg Report’s analysis of the Senate landscape. “Right now, 3-5 seems like the most likely guess, with Virginia, New Hampshire, Colorado and Louisiana currently the most likely seats to turn.” A year later, all but Louisiana from that group flipped, and Democrats gained eight seats overall.
“Democrats continue to have several advantages in the fight for the House: retirements/open seats, money and the broad national environment,” according to the January 2008 report. “Growing concerns about the economy could also drag down the President’s (and his party’s) numbers further, giving Democratic candidates another powerful message.” We hadn’t published a likely range for the House yet, but Democrats ended up gaining 21 seats overall.
“National atmospherics strongly favor Democrats. President Bush’s ratings are down and a majority of Americans believe things in the country are ‘off on the wrong track,’” the Rothenberg Report wrote in late October 2005. “The GOP’s danger next year is that, because of the national environment, Democrats win most or all of the close races. That often happens (as it did in 1980, 1986 and 1994), and if it does in 2006, Democrats could add as many as five or even six senators.”
And that’s what happened. Even though Bush won reelection in 2004, the tide completely turned against him shortly thereafter. (His response to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 might have been the final straw.) Democrats ended up gaining the six Senate seats and the majority.
On the House side, the wave was still developing. “Democrats don’t have as many top tier candidates as they need to make major gains. That means that their ability to pick up the 15 seats that they need for a majority depends on the size of the midterm wave,” the report stated. “Democrats still have the potential for major gains (even taking the House), but their current prospects are somewhat lower.”
In January 2006, the Rothenberg team projected a Democrat gain of five to eight seats with a bias toward even greater Democratic gains. Along that trajectory, Democrats gained 31 House seats (and the majority) 11 months later.
“Barring events that change the dynamics next year, President Bush will begin as a favorite for re-election even with the country’s polarization. Over on Capitol Hill, Democrats remain long-shots in their efforts to retake the US House and the US Senate,” read the Rothenberg Political Report in December 2003.
“Unless there are more GOP retirements or a national Democratic surge, it is still very difficult to see the Republicans losing the House next year,” the report said in November 2003. “Fewer than three dozen races appear very interesting, and the sheer lack of competitive districts almost guarantees Republican control of the House after the 2004 elections.” A year later, Republicans gained a modest three seats and expanded their majority slightly.
It was a somewhat similar story on the Senate side. “The numbers don’t look great for the Democrats these days,” the Rothenberg Report noted at the beginning of January 2004. “We still believe the Republicans should make Senate gains, most likely in the range of one to three seats.” Ten months later, Republicans expanded their majority by four seats.
“National events — from the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the war on terrorism to the economy — are likely to play an important role in next year's elections, but it is far too early to know exactly how they will impact each race,” read the Rothenberg Report’s November 2001 Senate overview. “Given candidate recruiting and initial vulnerability assessments, we could see either party making a small gain.” A year later, Republicans saw a net gain of two Senate seats.
“Bush’s popularity, the economy, the war on terrorism and other factors will determine whether the Republicans can avoid the midterm losses that normally find the president’s party,” according to a January 2002 analysis. “At this point, the most likely outcome seems to be a small Democratic gain that would leave the Republicans in tenuous control of the House.”
That’s close to what happened. With help from a continued post-9/11 environment and redistricting, Bush’s GOP gained eight House seats, bucking the typical historical trend for the president’s party in a midterm.
Even though each election cycle is unique and it’s impossible to predict unforeseen news events, there’s a rhythm to partisan politics and an opportunity to make educated projections based on history and data, even a year out from an election.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.