FairVote's Predictions for Close U.S. House Races

Posted by Theodore Landsman on November 08, 2016

It’s election day in America! While the nail biting inducing races for control of the Senate and Presidency have dominated political news coverage, all across the country voters are casting their ballots for the House of Representatives. However, for all but a few of these voters, the outcomes are all-but predetermined. FairVote projects that the Democrats are certain to win 158 seats, and Republicans 195,  the remaining 82 races are less certain, but only a handful are truly competitive. Our full forecast is 192 seats for the Democrats, 243 seats for the Republicans.

Since 1998, FairVote has projected the results of upcoming congressional elections based solely on prior congressional and presidential election results. Without using any polling or campaign spending data, we were able to make high confidence projections for 80% of all congressional elections, which were accurate in 99.7% of races in 2012 and 2014 (we got one wrong). Indeed, even when we projected all 435 U.S. House seats, our accuracy rate was 96% for these two elections.

Still, it is worth asking, on the afternoon of the election, how do FairVote’s projections for close House races stack up against the competition? 

Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato have had two years to compile data for elaborate models which predict the results, but ultimately, their projections and ours are not so different. In our full projections, we forecast the Democrats will win 34 of 82 races that at least one of these models projects to be close, which is between Cook’s more conservative estimate of 33 out of 82, and Larry Sabato’s estimate of 40 out of 82. All of these projections leave Democrat’s far short of the 61 of 82 competitive seats they would need to win to get to 219 seats in the House of Representatives and win back the majority. This is despite the fact that both Cook and Sabato are forecasting a significant Clinton lead and Sabato is forecasting a Clinton landslide. FairVote’s projection is based on a 50-50 split in national party preference, which would ideally produce a roughly equal split in the House.

Why is Democratic control of the House so unlikely, even given a Clinton victory or landslide? Gerrymandering, campaign spending and incumbency advantage play a role, but the root cause is well understood: Republicans are distributed in a more geographically advantageous way than Democrats for single-winner geographic districts. Democratic voters are mostly situated in large cities with small geographic footprints, meaning Democratic candidates win their 160 or so safe districts by much higher margins than they need to, while Republican candidates win suburban and rural districts by lesser margins.

FairVote has a number of proposed reforms aimed at combatting problems with our congressional elections such as ranked choice voting and fair representation voting, which can be found on our website. For more information on partisan skew and noncompetitive districts check out our Monopoly Politics series.

 

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