Posted by Rob Richie, Drew Penrose on October 19, 2017
As we do each election cycle, FairVote has projected the partisan results of the next elections to the U.S. House of Representatives, and the results show a shocking lack of competition or fair representation. Since our first edition in 1997, we have called this biennial report Monopoly Politics - with good reason. Take a look at Monopoly Politics 2018, a fascinating companion report simulating the Fair Representation Act in all 50 states, and our interactive spreadsheet tool.
FairVote’s methodology projects with high confidence only the very safest seats. With 435 seats elected every cycle, you might think that means 50 or 60 incumbents. Think again. This year we are projecting 374 seats with high confidence - that’s nearly 86% of House seats. Almost every incumbent seeking re-election can feel very confident about victory in November 2018, no matter who their opponent is, how much is spent, or what kind of partisan wave there might be.
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To underscore our level of confidence, we made similar projections going into 2012, 2014 and 2016 in a total of 1,062 House races. We missed only one seat - that means our high confidence projections have an accuracy rate of more than 99.9%. The 2018 report shows the most ossified electoral landscape yet, being the first year we have projected more than 370 seats at this degree of confidence. The following map shows each congressional seat as an equal area. Only the yellow seats are in play; the purple seats are all safe enough to be projected with high confidence.
In addition to our 374 high-confidence projections, we also project favorites for the other 61 seats, though at a lower level of confidence. There are an additional 40 seats that clearly favor one party over the other, but not enough to warrant a projection. That leaves only 21 true “toss up” seats that only very slightly lean to one party. When we projected all 435 seats in 2016, we were remarkably accurate, even in the lower confidence projections. Of the 56 seats we did not project, but which favored one of the parties, we were right in 50 (89.3% correct). Of the 18 seats that were true “toss ups” with only a very slight lean toward one of the parties, we were right in 12 (66.7% correct). That means our full projections were correct in 423 out of 435 districts (97.2% correct). Those projections were made more than two years before the 2016 elections.
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What makes this all the more disturbing is that our remarkable accuracy ignores all polls, all demographic characteristics of the districts, and ignores the incumbent’s voting record and any scandals. We use only the presidential election results (both in the district and nationally) from 2016, and the incumbent’s performance in prior elections. The only updates we make after we have that data is to remove incumbents when they announce that they will not seek re-election and to recalculate our projections if a state redraws its district lines. We explain our methodology in the report in detail, but the overwhelmingly important factor is a district’s partisanship, measured only by the relative presidential vote in that district.
To make our projections transparent and accessible, FairVote also produces an interactive spreadsheet in which you can see each projection and how it was made, as well as data on all 435 seats. A separate tab on this sheet provides the national and state-by-state statistics, showing partisan skews with blue and red, as well as levels of competition in purple, with the safest states in a highly visible bright orange.
We invite you to visit the site, see our projections and make your own by putting in the two pieces of information we can’t predict: the national two-party preference and the electorate’s general view of incumbents. The two-party preference has varied over the years from 54.3% for Democrats in 2008 to 53.5% for Republicans in 2010; last year it was 50.51% for Republicans. The “incumbency bump” that shows the extra percentage points earned by an incumbent in a given year has ranged from a high of 7.7% in 2000 to a low of 2.8% in 2014; last year it was 3.3% percent. In a forthcoming blog, we will describe what our projections for 2018 would be under conditions similar to these and other prior elections.
Our state-by-state analysis drives home the entrenchment of incumbents under the current system, underscoring why it was no surprise that more than 98% won re-election last November. In more than half of the states, we project every single House seat. Every incumbent seeking re-election is projected as safe in a total of 27 states. Many of these are large states with multiple seats, including Ohio (all 16 seats safe), Georgia (all 14 seats safe), and North Carolina (all 13 seats safe). We project a majority of the seats in every state except Delaware and New Hampshire, which only have one and two seats respectively.
The way we elect representatives in Congress does not create a fair reflection of the voters who elect them. There are 19 states where we have already called more seats for one political party than that party should earn according to its statewide partisanship. In fact, there are three states where we can already safely project that one party will earn at least three seats more than the state’s partisanship suggests they should win (North Carolina and Ohio for Republicans, and Massachusetts for Democrats). If we use our projections for every seat, fully 32 of the 50 states would disproportionately favor one party over the other in a 50-50 year.
As a whole, the national landscape tilts in favor of Republicans, with Republicans sitting on 208 safe seats, only 10 away from a majority, and 22 additional unprojected seats favoring Republicans. Looking at the “tipping point” median district, we project that Democrats would need to earn more than 55% of national two-party preference among voters to earn even a one-seat majority. That imbalance creates a core problem of accountability. Power is exercised most responsibly when those in power believe they might lose if they cannot keep majority support.
And what of third parties and independents? A plurality of Americans now register outside the major parties when registering to vote, but our model can’t factor in that preference. When forced into a binary choice between Republicans and Democrats, nearly everyone has a preference. But that does not mean they feel well-represented by either choice and ultimately our system must accommodate those voters.
That’s where the Fair Representation Act (HR 3057) offers a way forward. The bill would replace the winner-take-all system for electing the House with a more fair system. By using ranked choice voting and electing up to five winners in every district, “red” and “blue” districts would be replaced by regions of states fairly representing different voices. With our Monopoly Politics report we have released a detailed simulation of what the Fair Representation Act would achieve.
Our simulation of the impact of this bill shows that each of the issues described above would largely disappear. Competition would be nearly universal, with more seats in play between the parties and with general election voters having more choices from within each party as well. The simulated districts did not make any attempt to force partisan fairness, yet they demonstrate that the system does result in overall fair results, with the partisan majority in Congress closely tracking its vote share in each state and in the national result. By more fairly representing the spectrum of opinion, the bill would also break down the partisan polarization plaguing Congress today. The system would also improve our abysmal levels of women’s representation in Congress, and also result in communities of color having voting power far more proportional to their population sizes.
For now, though, most of us live in a winner-take-all democracy, in which only the single largest group of voters has power in a given congressional district. That “monopoly” is serving us poorly. Monopoly Politics 2018 lays out the problem. The Fair Representation Act simulation points the way forward.