Here’s What It's Going to Take for Democrats to Take Back the House in 2018

There's red dread and blue hope. But election data nerds say Dems must do even more next year.

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What a difference one special election makes! Following Tuesday’s historic victory by Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama’s Senate race, Democrats and Republicans, to say nothing of pundits and election data-crunchers, have been revisiting old assumptions about 2018 and 2020.

Most visibly, the radical reactionary Republicans who backed Roy Moore, led by white nationalist and Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon, are on the defensive. Bannon, who never stopped himself from throwing mud before, complained about the Democrats' “new model” of smearing his Breitbart-branded patriots. Of course, mainstream media had a villainous role.

“I think the new model is they’re going to come at people with personal attacks and just overwhelm them with media—and you got to remember this wasn’t supported, this was triggered by the establishment,” Bannon said Wednesday night on his national radio show, referring to the Washington Post's reporting of Moore’s past habit of preying on teenage girls. “They’re the ones that triggered all this stuff on Moore.”

His guest on Breitbart News Tonight, Pat Caddell, went even further into the us-versus-them, real patriots-versus-establishment shills divide that is likely to resurface in 2018’s GOP congressional primaries. (Caddell is a pollster who four decades ago helped elect Democrat Jimmy Carter, but in recent years has backed Donald Trump and white-America centered populism.)

“Understand this,” he intoned. “We’re watching how they are developing to handle the revolt, if you will, or the rebellion; you put it down. And that is to work in concert with the mainstream media. Even Republicans are doing this, as well as the Democratic establishment, to squeeze this out, and they will use it to attack candidates who are unworthy… But as people come forth to take back their country, we’re going to have to find ways to protect, to give cover to these people… [from others] trying to take them out.”

The Bannon mob isn't usually this defensive. But after Alabama, they have plenty to worry about, even if it's not what they’re fixating on. Alabama saw an unprecedented numbers of whites—especially those under 44 and suburban women— vote for a Democrat, instead of reflexively for a Republican.  

That is a break-the-mold political development. It was one of many metrics from the Alabama election that leads to a new landscape of blue hope and red dread. Another is Alabama counties with majorities of registered Democrats showed up in much larger percentages to vote than GOP majority counties.

This raises a question some of the country’s best respected election data crunchers and forecasters have been debating since Tuesday: How big of a popular vote majority do Democrats need in 2018 to win back the House?

At Sabato’s Crystal Ball, named after Larry Sabato, who decades ago took the helm at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, a rather dense post by Alan Abramowitz concluded, “a popular vote margin of between three and four points would be large enough for this purpose.”

The reason Democrats cannot win elections simply with 50 percent plus one is because many House districts have been gerrymandered, which means their boundaries were drawn based on segregating each party's most reliable voters. The GOP did this in a dozen states in 2011 that resulted in Congress and state legislatures being under their control for most of this decade. So Abramowitz is saying that 53 to 54 percent of registered Democrats must vote in November 2018 for their party to win 24 seats to take the House.

Other election data nerds quickly pounced on that figure as being too slim in Twitter posts.

“I thought it was more?” replied David Leonhardt, a New York Times columnist. 

“This is way too low. More like 7-8%,” tweeted David Wasserman, the U.S. House editor for the Cook Political Report.

“Totally agree. I don’t have numbers in front of me but I’ve looked at this specific w before. It’s basically 7.25% by which Dems need to win national vote for Congress in order to overcome gerrymandering. Chew on that,” tweeted Jeremy Kalin, a former Minnesota legislator.

Then came’s Harry Enten, who tweeted, “Lots of discussion in nerd Twitter on just how much Dems need to win House vote by in order to win majority of seats. Here's what I wrote in Feb 2017.”

That analysis is worth reposting, because it says Dems need an 8-point popular vote edge to breach the GOP’s gerrymander advantage.

“The median congressional district was 5.5 percentage points more Republican-leaning in the presidential race than the nation as a whole in 2016, meaning Democrats are essentially spotting the GOP 5.5 points in the battle for control of the House,” Enten wrote. “And even that may be underestimating Republicans ability to win a majority of seats without a majority of the vote. Since 2012 (or when most states instituted the current House district lines), Republicans have won, on average, 51 percent of the two-party House vote and 55 percent of House seats. If that difference holds for 2018, Democrats would need to win the House popular vote by about 8 percentage points to win half the House seats.”

Why do these figures matter? Because as some of these same election data crunchers pore over the exit polls and other results from Alabama and every other big election in 2017, it appears that the Democratic wave is right on the brink of closely winning (like in Alabama) or losing (as Jon Ossoff did by a few points in Georgia’s sixth congressional district last spring).

“In six 2017 special elections, Dems have been outperforming their @CookPolitical PVI-suggested share of the vote by an average of 9%,” tweeted Wasserman on Friday.

So, if Democrats have been turning out by 9 percent more than expected, how come they haven’t swept every race this year, you might ask? The answer is the gerrymandering advantage, which these analysts have been debating, is at the starting line of the process. But there are other intentional barriers that await Democrats at the finish line, where Republicans have passed laws and regulations to undermine turnout. The biggest is stricter voter ID requirements to get a polling place ballot, which congressional analysts have said peels off 2 to 3 percent of likely turnout. (Academics say it’s more.) There are other tactics too, such as limiting early voting opportunities, complicating registration and illegally purging infrequent voters.

Alabama’s senate election was the perfect capstone to a year when Democratic candidates and voters increasingly were getting their mojo back. Bannon and his right-wing rabble should be worried, because as Dems are getting organized and more optimistic, the Republicans are rife with intra-party strife, deeply unpopular policies and an unstable president.

However, Democrats, progressives and independents need to know the scale of the barriers that await in 2018. Because as much as the opposition party turned around and regained momentum in 2017, more will be needed next year to retake Congress and put a big red stop sign before the GOP.    

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).


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Election 2018