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Over the past few weeks, I have heard some people suggest that President Barack Obama’s strategy in pursuing his legislative agenda is more about creating issues for the 2014 midterm elections than about passing legislation.
Whether that is true, it leads to an obvious question: Is the president able to put the House back into Democratic hands, even if he wants to?
Electing a Democratic House next year would allow Obama to push a more unapologetically liberal agenda in his final two years, which he clearly would prefer. And it certainly sounds as if he will be more active during the 2014 midterms than he was in 2010, when his party saw a net loss of 63 House seats and fell into the minority.
He has already committed to holding at least 14 fundraisers for his party’s two congressional campaign committees, including eight for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which will lead the party’s charge to net at least 17 House seats in 2014. He’s also told DCCC Chairman Steve Israel of New York that he will help with candidate recruitment.
It’s far too early to know whether Democrats will have some, or even any, chance to win back the House next year; candidate recruitment has just begun, the number of retirements (and open seats) is uncertain and the president’s popularity more than 20 months from now is an open question. But we do know that history, as The New York Times’ Nate Silver pointed out in a column last November, suggests that Democrats will have a very tough road to 218 seats.
Going back to the election of 1862, the only time the president’s party gained as many as 10 seats was, well, never. Even in 1934, the best showing by the president’s party in House elections since the Civil War, the president’s party gained only nine seats.
In 1998, Democrats gained a handful of seats during Bill Clinton’s second midterm (five), and Republicans gained a somewhat larger handful during George W. Bush’s first midterm (eight). But in each case, unusual circumstances — post-impeachment fallout in 1996 and political fallout from the attacks of 9/11 (plus redistricting) in 2002 — help account for the atypical results.
So, while midterm elections have produced some huge swings well in excess of 17 seats recently — in 2010, 2006, 1994 and 1982, for example — all of those swings were in the favor of the party not holding the White House.