Voices & Choices

Why partisanship determines election winners even without incumbents

Why partisanship determines election winners even without incumbents

Editor’s note: This is the second in a four-part series considering the outcome of the November 2018 elections for the United States House of Representatives in the context of our Monopoly Politics projections. Read the first part here.

Open seats in the U.S. House of Representatives can offer a chance for more competitive races: no incumbent, no home field advantage. But this idea of a level playing field ignores the partisanship and two-party monopoly that plague our electoral system.

An open seat occurs when an incumbent does not seek reelection. Under this definition, 63 of the 435 House seats are open heading into the November election. Forty-one of them (65 percent) are currently Republican-held. Because incumbents often retire when they sense they are too vulnerable to win re-election, a large number of retiring incumbents from one party can be both a sign and a symptom of a partisan wave for their opponents. This year, the swath of retiring Republicans has fueled talk of a “blue wave” in 2018.

A number of political commentators project 2018 will not be a baseline 50-50 year in terms of national party preference - meaning votes are equally divided between the two major political parties - but that Democrats will likely be favored by as much as a 54.3 percent swing.

FairVote’s Monopoly Politics report includes its own projections for the outcomes of each House race nearly two years in advance. It also tracks which seats are open. However, the analysis does not consider the reason for the opening--whether the representative retired, resigned, or was appointed to or is running for another office. In other words, scandals, current events and other circumstances specific to a seat or race have no bearing on FairVote’s projections. An open seat is an open seat, influenced only by district partisanship and national party preference.

FairVote’s model, however, considers just 15 of the 63 open House seats close races, meaning there is no ‘high confidence’ projection for the outcome. This leaves five seats as opportunities for Republican gains, and 10 seats as opportunities for Democrats. That so few open seats are competitive reflects general lack of competition in our winner-take-all system.

Nineteen of the 31 retiring representatives are leaving districts which are competitive or are projected to favor the other party. Of these representatives, 12 are Republicans, while seven are Democrats. The greater number of Republicans provides further evidence that 2018 might be a “blue wave” year.

The share of races in which the party currently holding the seat is projected to fare better without its incumbent seeking another term also defies the norm. This is the case for seven seats in which the current representative performs less well than expected for an average (or generic) candidate from their party, (referred to as performance over average candidate or POAC). Six of these seven representatives are Republicans. However, many of the highest performing candidates - those who fare far better than an average candidate of the same party - are also Republicans, leading to comparable averages between the two main parties. This indicates that individual candidates, rather than one particular party, are likely the source of voters’ disenchantment.

The built-in advantage of the two main parties cripples election competition. Open seats are a clear example underscoring that districts often go to the party which has consolidated its position year after year rather than a broadly supported set of ideas. Unsurprisingly, this leaves many voters feeling unrepresented.

There is a better way to ensure more competitive and representative House races in which candidates who a majority of voters agree upon win. The Fair Representation Act combines larger, multi-winner districts and ranked choice voting to create more competitive elections with outcomes that better represent voters’ preferences.

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Illustration by Mikhaila Markham

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