There are just as many competitive House races this year as usual

Several factors can make races competitive even if districts aren’t drawn that way

The race for the open House seat in Rhode Island's 2nd District is competitive even though President Joe Biden won it with 56 percent of the vote in 2020 because Republican candidate and Cranston, R.I., Mayor Allan Fung is a strong candidate. (Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images file photo)
The race for the open House seat in Rhode Island's 2nd District is competitive even though President Joe Biden won it with 56 percent of the vote in 2020 because Republican candidate and Cranston, R.I., Mayor Allan Fung is a strong candidate. (Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images file photo)
Posted August 12, 2022 at 5:30am

No, there aren’t fewer competitive House races. 

According to the national narrative, partisan redistricting and gerrymandering have diminished the number of competitive House races over the past 20 years. And the lack of competitive races, this narrative argues, is to blame for the partisanship and gridlock on Capitol Hill. 

But that’s just not the case. The electoral situation is more complex and nuanced than the conventional wisdom because there are actually more competitive races at this point in the cycle than average, going back almost three decades.

That dissonance could result from a lack of clarity of definitions. There’s a difference between a swing district and a competitive race, even though the terms are often used interchangeably. It’s similar to the difference between a battleground state and a swing state. 

A swing district has relatively even partisan performance, while a competitive race is a situation in which either Republicans or Democrats have a legitimate chance of winning the seat. Competitive races can take place in swing districts or solid districts because competitiveness takes into account candidate quality, fundraising, the national political environment and other factors beyond past election results. 

Competitive races by election year 1994-2022

So it’s certainly possible for a competitive race to take place in a district that isn’t technically a swing district. For example, Joe Biden would have won Rhode Island's 2nd District with 56 percent in 2020, yet it is a competitive race in 2022. A combination of the open seat, a uniquely strong GOP candidate in Allan Fung and the national political environment has created a competitive race in a seat that is not considered a swing district. 

There are fewer swing districts. 

Thirty-four of the new districts in place for the 2022 elections would have voted for either Biden or President Donald Trump by 5 points or less in 2020, according to a CNN study. Before new district maps were drawn this year, there were 17 more districts that met that definition of swinginess.

The number of swing districts has also decreased steadily over the past 25 years, according to the Cook Partisan Voting Index, a measure of how much more a district votes for a particular party, using the two most recent presidential races, compared to the nation as a whole. David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter explained that the number of competitive districts with a lean toward Democrats or Republicans of 5 percentage points or less has gone from 160 in 1998 to 82 now. The number of “hyper-competitive” districts with a D+3 or R+3 or less has gone from 105 in 1998 to 45 today. 

Nevertheless, there are just as many competitive races, if not a few more, than average this cycle. 

Currently, Inside Elections has 81 House races listed as competitive, meaning they are rated as Toss-up, Tilt, Lean, or Likely. Since 1994 (and including ratings from The Rothenberg Political Report), the average number of competitive races in August and September of an election year has been 72 each cycle. 

Eighty-one competitive races at this point in the cycle is more than at the same point in four of the past five election cycles. There were 66 in 2020, 86 in 2018, 36 in 2016, 51 in 2014, and 74 in 2012. In 2010, there were 88 competitive races at about this point in the cycle. That number ballooned to more than 100 by Election Day, and Republicans ended up gaining 63 seats. 

Having more swing districts should increase the overall number of competitive races. But the decline in the number of swing districts does not necessarily mean there are fewer competitive races. Republicans need a net gain of just four seats for a majority, so they don’t need a large battleground anyway.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.