On Nov. 9, 2016, the United States woke up to a newly elected Donald Trump as its 45th president. Every media outlet, poll and statistic had indicated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would not only win the election, but win in a landslide. The media joked, laughed and scoffed at the idea of a Trump presidency from the very beginning, which is perhaps how it set up the American public for such a shock.
And that’s exactly why it’s key to pay close attention to things like the latest Monopoly Politics report from FairVote, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that has been tracking and predicting House of Representatives elections since 1992. FairVote followed more than 1,000 congressional races in 2012, 2014 and 2016 — and of those races, only one of its “high confidence” projections were wrong.
And in 2018, FairVote predicts Congress will remain under Republican control.
“I would be surprised if we get any of them wrong,” Drew Spencer Penrose, FairVote’s legal and policy director, said in a phone interview with Mic about the organization’s U.S. House midterm election projections.
For the 2018 midterms, FairVote determined it could predict 374 seats — nearly 86% of all races — with high confidence. “Almost every incumbent seeking re-election can feel very confident about victory in November 2018, no matter who their opponent is, how much is spent or what kind of partisan wave there might be,” the Monopoly Politics report reads.
“There are several that we don’t project but do have a clear lean toward one of the parties,” Penrose said. “And then there are some that are genuine toss-ups.”
In the end, Penrose said he and the entire FairVote team believes Republicans will retain control of the House — and maybe gain even more seats than you’d expect. “What we can say is that Republican candidates will almost certainly win more seats than their national vote preference would suggest,” Penrose said.
Here are three reasons why.
1. Intentional gerrymandering
The first factor is intentional gerrymandering, which really kicked into high gear following the 2010 elections, when Republicans successfully took a large number of state legislature seats, Mother Jones previously reported. That also happened to be when the last U.S. Census took place, giving Republicans the opportunity to redraw district lines.
“There was a very concerted national effort to increase the number of Republican seats in Congress through that process, and it was pretty successful,” Penrose said. The same thing may happen in 2018, he said, when there will be six to eight states where Republicans can pick up seats as a result of intentional gerrymandering.
However, intentional gerrymandering isn’t even the biggest driver of FairVote’s predicted Republican favor in 2018, according to Penrose.
2. The incumbent advantage
There are more Republican incumbents than Democratic incumbents up for election in 2018 — and incumbents typically have an advantage over their opponents.
As a 2016 Rasmussen Report showed, 3393 of 435 House representatives, 29 of 34 senators, and five of 12 governors who sought reelection that year — several governors were prohibited from seeking another term — won. That means 97% of House members, 93% of Senators and four of five governors won another term. Astonishingly, the 2016 figures aren’t significantly better than any post-World War II election.
This tendency to select a familiar candidate is actually a studied behavioral phenomena known as the “default effect,” which means that even when people are unhappy with a state of affairs, they are often disinclined to actually change them, social psychologist Musa al-Gharbi previously explained to Mic. It’s similar to how most internet users will never even read the terms of service agreement on a website.
“Even if you don’t like the current state of affairs, if you’re used to it, chances are you have at least some kind of investment in the current order,” al-Gharbi said. “You develop strategies to navigate it. And what’s next could be a lot worse.”
3. Geographic disparity
The final reason for FairVote’s 2018 predictions is what’s known as geographical disparity, which essentially says “Democratic areas within states tend to be more heavily Democratic than Republican areas within states are Republican,” Penrose explained.
For example, former President Barack Obama actually won a record-low number of counties in the 2012 presidential election — but where he did win, he won by huge numbers.
“Counties have become more and more Republican,” Penrose said, which can often lead to wide swaths of heavily Democratic regions having their votes, as he put it, “wasted” because they are unable to further sway a county toward electing a Democratic candidate.
How close are we talking?
All 435 House seats are up for re-election in 2018, which means a party needs 218 to win a majority. FairVote’s high-confidence projections determined Republicans are already sitting on 208, which means they only need to win 10 of the remaining races to stay in control.
“As it happens, the ones that we don’t project lean Republican by a pretty sizable margin,” Penrose said. “There are 22 of those. So Republicans only need to win about half of the seats that lean toward them in order for them to retain their majority.”
Compare that to what Democrats would have to do, if FairVote’s predictions are accurate.
“They are sitting on basically 166 safe seats, which would mean they would have to win all 18 of the seats that lean Democratic,” Penrose said. “They would have to win all 21 of the toss-up seats, and they would have to win more than half of the seats that lean Republican in order to win a majority in the House of Representatives.”
“... [I]t’s kind of a troubling thing for what it will mean for people’s view of the power of their votes,” Penrose said.