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Do Democrats Have a Shot at the House?

So far this election season we have written very little about the race for the House of Representatives. In part this is because this looks to be less dramatic than the presidential race — where Barack Obama has only a slight edge, in my view — or the race for the Senate, which looks increasingly like a tossup.

In the House, by contrast, Republicans are reasonably clear favorites to maintain their majority.

Still, the House is probably more difficult to analyze than the battle for the Senate or the presidential race. Democrats, in my view, do retain something of an upside case that revolves around the possibility that anti-incumbent sentiment could manifest itself in a large amount of Congressional turnover.

A macro-level view of the House of Representatives usually begins with the generic Congressional ballot. Right now, that shows Democrats and Republicans roughly tied; about as many people say they plan to vote for the Democratic candidate for Congress as the Republican one.

It might be thought that if the generic ballot is tied, the seats in the House would be split about evenly, therefore implying that Democrats had about even odds of retaking the chamber. But that probably is not the case. Generally, the incumbent party in the House over-performs its vote share in terms of the number of seats it carries because of the way the vote is distributed from district to district, and therefore has a little slack in its numbers. A crude estimate we made last year is that Democrats might need to have a 3 or 4 point edge on the generic ballot — not a mere tie — to have even odds of winning the House.

It is plausible that the seat-by-seat breakdown of the House vote will be different this year if the incumbency advantage is smaller than normal.

However, Republicans have a very nice hedge against this contingency: redistricting. Republicans, who were in control of the redistricting process in far more places than Democrats, were able to shore up some of their vulnerable incumbents. In a true wave election, these defenses might prove feeble or even counterproductive, but in an election where there were merely a slight edge to Democrats, they could make the Republicans’ majority considerably more robust.

Indeed, there are few signs of a wave breaking, in the generic ballot or elsewhere. Republican candidates for the United States House have raised about $360 million so far, compared with about $250 million for Democrats. It is typical for the incumbent party to have an advantage in fund-raising, but when there is a true wave coming, the challenging party can sometimes overcome it. Republicans, for instance, slightly out-raised Democrats in 2010. And these figures do not include independent expenditures, which are also likely to favor Republicans.

The results of special elections for House seats can also be indicators, but they should be employed carefully. However, the special-elections scorecard was mixed. Things look a little more respectable for Democrats now that they retained Gabrielle Giffords’s seat in Arizona in a special election earlier this month. But they had an awful day in September, when they lost Anthony Weiner’s seat in New York and were blown out in what had looked like a competitive race in Nevada. On the other hand, Democrats did flip a Republican seat in upstate New York earlier last year, when their candidate Kathy Hochul campaigned on a platform that hit her Republican opponent on the cuts the Republican budget proposed to entitlement programs.

Taken as a whole, the set of special elections might suggest that races for the House could be more localized and idiosyncratic than in 2006, 2008 or 2010, rather than there being a wave in either direction. The Democrats need to gain a net of 25 seats to take control of the House, probably more than they could realize just by happening to win a lot of coin flips at the district-by-district level.

So where does the Democrats’ upside case come from? There is always the statistical probability that the economy will grow by a faster-than-expected rate in the second half of the year. Economists expect the economy to grow by about 2.3 percent over the next two quarters. But economic forecasting is an extremely rough science and “surprising” results occur more often (and both to the upside and the downside) than forecasters might like to acknowledge. We could be back in a recession by the end of the year, or we could be creating 200,000 jobs per month.

Even the economic upside case, however, would not be an unambiguous good for Democratic Congressional candidates. It would likely help President Obama, and in presidential election years, a large number of people do not pay much attention to House races, enabling the winning presidential candidate to have some coattails down the ballot. Apart from these coattail effects, though, the impact of economic performance is rather ambiguous in races for the Congress when control of government is divided.

There is an entirely credible theory that if voters are happier, they may be more inclined to retain the status quo, which in this case means a Democratic president and a Republican House. It may be noteworthy that at the same time that Barack Obama’s approval ratings were improving somewhat in the first three months of this year, mostly as a result of slightly improved economic confidence, the generic Congressional ballot seemed to be getting more favorable for Republicans rather than Democrats. I would certainly think Democratic candidates for the House would prefer a better economy on balance, but it is not a slam dunk.

Instead, the numbers that would leave me at least a little bit worried if I were a Republican incumbent are the extremely low Congressional approval ratings, which are hovering at about 18 percent and which are improved only slightly from their lows after the debt-ceiling debate. Historically, these numbers have seemed to have some predictive power: when Congressional approval has been lower, the amount of turnover in Congress has been higher.

Higher turnover could cut for incumbents of both parties. However, since Republicans have more incumbents in the House — and far more incumbents in competitive districts because they won almost all of them in 2010 — this could work to their disadvantage on balance. (The same would not necessarily be true, importantly, in the Senate, where Democrats are defending more incumbent seats). House campaigns have not really begun yet — and voters do not tune into them until quite late in the cycle. It seems plausible that challenging candidates will find that they have the wind at their backs once these voters do begin to tune in.

In short, the signs so far are that Republican incumbents are holding up well enough in the House, and that there is not much of a wave breaking in either direction. But, it is quite early, and I do not think we have a keen sense yet of how anti-Congressional sentiment might translate into individual races. Betting markets give Democrats about 4-to-1 odds against re-claiming the House. This is not completely out of line, but I might take Democrats’ side of the bet just on the general principle of long uncertainty early in a political cycle.

A brief housekeeping note: You may have noticed that the pace of posts here at FiveThirtyEight has quickened. This is how it should be from now through November. For the next week or two, we are going to be alternating between posts like Friday morning’s that explain how the forecasting model works in more detail and those like this one that constitute our regular news coverage.

At some point, probably in mid-July, we will resume the “today’s polls” feature that included a rundown of the presidential surveys that were released that day.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.