The Slatest

The Hard Truth About House Democrats Being “Soft Favorites” This Fall

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks with reporters on July 12, 2018 in Washington, D.C.
Things are looking up for Nancy Pelosi and her fellow House Democrats. But they shouldn’t get ahead of themselves.
Alex Edelman/Getty Images

With a little more than 100 days until the midterms, things are looking increasingly bright for Democrats’ bid to retake the House. The latest bit of good news for the party comes by way of a leading nonpartisan handicapper, which for the first time this cycle is giving House Democrats slightly better-than-even odds of picking up the 23 seats they need this November.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the clunkily named newsletter run by political scientist Larry Sabato and his colleagues at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, nudged 17 congressional races in the direction of Democrats on Tuesday, eight of which are Republican-held seats that shifted into the toss-up column. According to the updated ratings, a whopping 40 GOP seats are toss-ups or worse for Republicans, and another 16 “lean Republican,” suggesting they too could flip this fall. By contrast, a total of just six Democratic seats are “lean Democrat” or better for the GOP. As a result, when the UVA team peers into its crystal ball, they now see Democrats as the “soft favorite” to win control of the lower chamber.

Other leading handicappers are painting similar pictures. The Cook Political Report, the most well-known of the bunch, currently rates 86 Republican seats and only 14 Democratic ones as potentially competitive, and already had Democrats as “narrow favorites” to retake the House before a Democratic-favoring update earlier this month. Inside Elections, another top prognosticator, has 68 GOP seats in play, compared with just nine Democratic seats at last count.

“[N]o one believes there is any chance the Republicans come out of this election with more seats than they hold now,” Crystal Ball managing editor Kyle Kondik wrote. “Even just a single-digit GOP seat loss would be shocking, an outcome driven by late developments unforeseeable at this juncture.”

But that is where the hard truth of being a soft favorite comes in—one we all would be wise to remember in the wake of 2016: The flip side of Democrats being slight favorites is that Republicans are only slight underdogs. Democrats could post double-digit gains nationwide this fall and still find themselves in the minority next year.

Thanks to gerrymandering, geographical quirks, and other factors, the GOP has a sizable built-in advantage in the midterms. Some experts, like those at the Brennan Center for Justice, believe that Democrats will need to win the national vote by nearly 11 percentage points to retake control of the House, while others think the magic margin could be a low as 4 percentage points. Democrats are splitting the difference in the generic ballot at the moment. They currently enjoy a 7.1-percentage-point lead in RealClearPolitics’ unweighted running average and a 7.5-percentage-point lead in FiveThirtyEight’s weighted one, which prioritizes higher-rated pollsters.

Democrats have plenty of reasons to be optimistic. They’ve fared remarkably well in special elections this year. They’re fresh off an extraordinary fundraising quarter. And they boast a diverse lineup of credible candidates, many with compelling life stories to offer voters. Republicans, meanwhile, are fighting historical headwinds, as well as an usually high number of retirements from their ranks. The question that matters, though, isn’t whether Democrats pick up seats in November; it’s whether they can pick up enough.