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Can Dems Pick Up 17 House Seats in 2014?

A lot of election commentary has focused on the formidable predicament Dems face as a result of GOP gerrymandering in the House of Representatives, resulting in fewer and fewer swing districts. The general consensus is that it has screwed us out of a decent shot at retaking a House majority and dims prospects for moving legislation forward.

Nate Silver, for example, paints a pretty bleak picture of Democratic prospects going forward in his FiveThirtyEight post, "Democrats Unlikely to Regain House in 2014," explaining:

...Democrats did regain some ground in the House. Although several races remain uncalled, Democrats would wind up with 201 seats in the House if all races are assigned to the current leader in the vote count - an improvement from the 193 seats Democrats held after the 2010 midterm elections. That would leave Democrats needing to pick up 17 seats to win control of the chamber in 2014.

Although 17 seats is not an extraordinary number, both historical precedent in midterm election years and a deeper examination of this year's results would argue strongly against Democrats being able to gain that many seats.

There is also reason to suspect that Democrats are unlikely to sustain the sort of losses in the House that they did in 2010. But odds are that the electoral climate in 2014 will be somewhere between neutral and Republican-leaning, rather than favoring Democrats.

In midterm election years since World War II, the president's party has lost an average of 26 seats in the House, as shown in the chart below. The president's party gained seats only twice, in 1998 and 2002.

...This year, there were only 11 House seats that Democrats lost by five or fewer percentage points. Thus, even if they had performed five points better across the board, they would still have come up six seats short of controlling the chamber.

In other words, Democrats would have to perform quite a bit better in House races in 2014 than they did in 2012 to win control of the chamber - when usually the president's party does quite a bit worse instead.

As Rob Richie and Devin McCarthy report at Fairvote.org that "52% of Voters Wanted a Democratic House," yet the GOP kept a comfortable majority of 54% of seats in the House despite Democratic candidates having an overall 4% advantage in voter preference over their Republican opponents."

At The Hill, Cameron Joseph notes,

According to a recent study by the Center for Voting and Democracy, Democrats start off with 166 safe districts while Republicans start off with 195. There are only 74 true swing districts where the presidential candidates won between 46 and 54 percent of the popular vote, down from 89 before redistricting.

That means the GOP needs to win less than one-third of competitive House seats to stay in control -- something that shouldn't be too hard to accomplish, barring a huge Democratic wave. In a politically neutral year Democrats are likely to have around 203 seats, a number that's only slightly higher than the number they'll have once the remaining 2012 races are called.

While historical precedent has been a dependable factor to consider in predicting House election outcomes, there are exceptional elections that bust precedents. Also, the Republican party is more divided than it has been in many decades, and it could get a lot worse. Dems are more united than in a long time, and we can build our edge while Republicans work through their internecine squabbles.

Many pundits were surprised by the pivotal influence of demographic transformation on November 6th and the microtargeting prowess and intensity of Democratic GOTV. Republicans will eventually catch up on microtargeting, but there will be a learning curve of some duration for them, during which Dems can gain ground in swing districts.

One significant obstacle is that many of the most skilled Dem GOTV operatives will be deployed defending Senate seats, with a very tough map for 2014. But with adequate training for new GOTV workers and volunteers. Dems will be better prepared to leverage our informational edge.

According to CNN Politics data, Republicans won 41 of the 435 House Seats being contested with 55 percent or less of votes cast in each district. Here are 27 U.S. congressional districts that Republicans won with 53 percent or less of votes cast: CA31; CO3; FL2; FL10; IL 13; IN2; IN8; IA3; IA4; KY6; MI1; MI3; MI7; MI11; MN6; MT1; NB2; NV3; NY11; NY19; NY23; NY27; NC9; OH6; OH16; PA12; and TX14.

Advantages and disadvantages for both parties will pop up in those districts in the two years ahead. But, with our informational advantage, Dems may be better prepared to exploit new developments and incumbent blunders as they emerge. Of course, Dems will have to be equally-energetic in defending House seats they won by close margins.

Democrats ought to be able to pick up 17 Republican seats with a combination of better candidates, state-of-the-art micro-targeting and a more focused and energetic GOTV program targeting pro-Democratic constituencies in those districts - small though they may be. There should be an equally vigorous 'front porch' campaign to sway persuadable voters. Further, if Democrats can do as well as we have with 7.9 percent unemployment, an improving economy should boost our chances in '14.

Too much focus on historical precedent is debilitating. History is never made by entertaining defeatist memes or those who are daunted by precedent. Indeed, all that President Obama has achieved has resulted from his determination not to be discouraged or in any way deterred by historical precedent. With a similar bold vision -- and some muscle behind it, Democrats can retake a House majority in the 2014 midterms. If we decide that we aren't going to be ruled by history in 2014, then we can make it.