Democrats' Prospects in 2014 Are Worth an Honest Debate

Over the years, I've complained about the tone of our political discussions, including some of what supposedly passes for political analysis. Too much of it is merely political advocacy cloaked in pseudo-analysis, and it drives me nuts.

Maybe that’s why I'm pleased to recommend a piece recently posted on Daily Kos, a liberal website that happily produces serious analysis and useful data, even while it often — too often for my taste — reflects a strong ideological bent.

Steve Singiser’s “The real, but unknowable, path to a Democratic House majority,” posted on March 31, is a thoughtful reaction to my March 19 Roll Call column, “Democrats Need to Expand House Playing Field.” I take it as an invitation to start a conversation, not an argument.

I looked at individual districts and concluded that Democrats still have a long way to go before they can realistically talk about having a chance to flip control of the House.

Singiser begins his reaction this way: “It's pretty rare that one can read an article, agree with just about every individual detail in the article, and yet disagree with the article completely.” And disagree he does, in a measured, detailed way, arguing that “microanalyses” invariably miss political waves and changes in voter sentiment.

So here is my reaction to Singiser’s criticism: I completely agree with you, Steve.

District-by-district analysis two or three months into a two-year election cycle is incredibly speculative.

Obviously, there are lots of factors that will help determine whether Democrats eventually have any shot at winning back the House next year. And I certainly emphasized that in my column. But that shouldn’t prevent a conclusion now — a very initial and tentative conclusion, I should emphasize — about the Democrats’ prospects for 2014.

Of course my analysis and conclusions will change if there's a sign of a Democratic wave developing or if dramatic events occur that redefine the political landscape.

I’d point out that my mid-March piece followed a Feb. 25 column, “Can Obama Put the House in Play in 2014,” in which I considered broader political questions, including the history of midterm elections, the likely makeup of the midterm electorate and the relatively small number of swing districts. All of those factors combined to argue against a Democratic midterm gain of anything close to 17 seats.

The February and March columns were meant to be complementary because they looked at historical trends and broader themes, as well as individual districts.

Singiser and I seem to agree that Democratic recruitment is crucial. If the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recruits more and stronger candidates in competitive and potentially competitive districts, Democrats could improve their chances of making significant gains, possibly even putting the House in play.

I say it “could” improve their chances because other factors — a drop in the president’s popularity or weak Democratic turnout, for example — could also offset some Democratic recruiting successes.

At the end of his piece, Singiser asks, “Can the Democrats win the majority in 19 months?” His answer — “Of course, they can” — suggests to me that he and I see the question differently.

If the question is whether it's theoretically possible for Democrats to net 17 seats in the 2014 midterms, I certainly understand Singiser's answer. Who knows where politics will be 19 months from now?

But if the question is whether there is any evidence right now that Democrats can retake the House next year (especially considering historical trends and the number of swing districts), the answer has to be no. This conclusion is based on the evidence now, and if the evidence changes, so could my conclusion.

Perhaps the best answer to the question, from my point of view, is one that some will find unsatisfactory: I don’t know.

Ask me again in a year, and then a few months after that, and then again in October 2014. I’ll have better answers then, after I do more reporting and have a better understanding of the cycle.