John Sides notes that the “president’s party tends to lose seats in midterm elections. Period.”
Part of the story is that the president isn’t on the ballot, and he often supplies coattails for congressional candidates to ride on. Part of the story is that the electorate may react against the ideological direction of the president’s party–as it has since Obama took office–and seeks to elect candidates from the other party. In any case, the “midterm penalty” is important. In elections from 1980-2012, we estimate that this penalty is 3 points of vote share.
Derek Willis looks at possible outcomes:
For Democrats, who hold 199 seats, a good night would be not losing any seats at all. At best, they could gain perhaps two, but that seems a very long shot. If things go as expected for Democrats, they could wind up with their lowest total since 1949, when they had 188 seats. (They had 193 after the 2010 elections.)
Enten believes that the GOP’s unpopularity is holding it back:
A Republican gain of five to 12 seats is significantly less than one would expect using presidential approval ratings alone as a predictor. If voters cared only about Obama’s performance, we’d expect a much more lopsided result: A Democratic loss of about 25 seats. That seems unlikely. Part of the reason that gains will be kept down is that, at 12.4 percent, this is the lowest congressional approval rating going into a midterm election since the question was first asked in 1974.
Overall, the House is all but determined. It’s falling right along the lines that we thought it would given the factors that normally accurately forecast House elections. Republicans are set to gain because it’s a midterm year and the president is unpopular, but they probably aren’t picking up as much as ground as they would if Congress were more popular.
Regardless, Chait expects the Republican House to keep Washington gridlocked:
If the House could make a deal with Obama, the Senate would sign on to the deal if it were controlled by Republicans or if it were controlled by Democrats. Gridlock will continue through the next Congress regardless of the Senate race.
Indeed, gridlock will continue after 2016 as well, unless Republicans win the presidency (in which case the House will churn out Republican bills for signing, as it did under George W. Bush). To get a sense of just how grim the picture is for Democrats, Benjy Sarlin reported several months ago on a Democratic plan to try to win back the House in 2020. The year 2020 is not picked out of a hat. It coincides with the next Census, which will redraw the House map. Sarlin’s reporting makes it pretty clear the Democrats don’t have an especially good chance of winning back the House in 2020 — it’s simply the next time such a prospect becomes even faintly imaginable.