The New York Times has a very good article today by economist Robert Frank, arguing that the dynamics of the 2016 election are so unusual that an all out push to take control of the previously believed to be untakeable House of Representatives is warranted. I agree wholeheartedly with this idea.
The Democratic Party comp seems poised to recapture its Senate majority this year, but the House is a different matter. Many warn that the current 61-seat Republican majority, much of it achieved by post-2010 gerrymandering, has made flipping the lower chamber an unrealistic goal.
But that view betrays a misunderstanding of how partisan gerrymandering actually works. One aim of the practice has been to reconfigure electoral boundaries to transfer redundant votes from safe districts into swing districts. If one district usually votes 60 percent Republican and an adjacent one votes 48 percent Republican, for example, boundaries might be redrawn so that each would vote 54 percent Republican. In a typical election year, the formerly Democratic district would flip Republican. But since each new district would have only a 4 percentage point cushion, both seats would turn blue in a Democratic wave election.
The redrawing of Pennsylvania’s congressional districts in 2011 illustrates the Republicans’ problem. Taken together, the state’s Democratic candidates won about 3 percent more votes than their opponents in 2012, but they won only five of its 18 seats. In the process, however, Republicans created four districts in which Republican presidential candidates normally win by less than two percentage points and another six with margins of six points or less. In theory, each of those seats is now more vulnerable than before. As of last month, according to the Republican political consultant Adrian Gray, Mrs. Clinton led in 54 Republican-held districts nationwide while Mr. Trump led in only three Democratic districts.
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It is difficult to overstate the threat that Mr. Trump poses for down-ballot candidates. Across party lines, high-ranking current and former government officials view him as lacking the temperament, character, judgment and experience required of a president. Polls suggest that this assessment is also widely shared by ordinary voters. Although vocal minorities have held similar views about presidential candidates in the past, the current situation is without precedent.
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vulnerable Republican congressional seats are in safely blue states like California and New York, a serious effort to end Republican majorities would of course require expenditures that will have no impact on the Electoral College vote. In the standard way of thinking about trade-offs like these, it would be rational to tolerate a slight increase in the risk of losing the electoral vote if doing so would sufficiently increase the odds of ending congressional gridlock.
But because a campaign’s budget is not a fixed sum, the trade-off may be more apparent than real. As economists have long stressed, the amount that people are willing to pay for something depends on what they expect to get in return. Democratic donors understand that their biggest concerns can’t be addressed until Republicans lose their congressional majorities. They also understand that if the House doesn’t flip this year, there will be virtually no chance of it flipping in the 2018 midterm elections. And until Democrats win enough seats in state legislatures to undo Republican gerrymandering — which could take decades — a wave election is the only near-term hope.
The candidacy of Donald Trump offers a unique opportunity. If Mrs. Clinton made the case clearly in these terms, many donors would step up. Democrats could compete for every vulnerable Republican seat without diverting a single dollar from the Electoral College battle.
The opportunity is there. Will national Democrats, typically a cautious and often timid bunch, seize the chance? I sure hope so. It would be nice to see congressional leaders making the case. So far, with 65 days before Election Day, that hasn’t happened. Let’s see if that changes. It should.