Congress returns: What will election year bring?

Last year Congress posted the second-lowest average approval rating of any year in our polling history, coming in a statistically-meaningless notch above 2012 (14 percent to 13 percent, respectively.)

Yet 2014 starts without any kind of wave building, and Republicans remain in good position to keep their majority despite there being just 17 seats separating them and the Democrats for control. In fact the playing field looks quite narrow, with relatively few districts that begin the year as really competitive or somewhat competitive – in total, 15 percent of the seats. 

  That’s not really because of Obamacare, nor the shutdown budget battles, no matter the rhetoric. The low number of competitive districts is the signature of a partisan age, when voters’ partisanship can be just as rigid as what we often see inside the chamber. The parties who gerrymander and draw safe districts get a lot of blame, but gerrymanders work because voters back their same party year after year. Ninety-four percent of Republican voters vote for House Republicans, 94 percent of Democrats, for Democrats, a pattern that shows no signs of changing now. This wasn’t always the case. A generation ago the rate of crossover voting ranged three times higher than today’s.

But that doesn’t mean the House battles won’t be interesting – in fact, it looks like we'll have a chance to dive into areas of the country often overlooked in presidential years. A quick look at the map of where the hottest races might be shows clustering in regions very different from the usual “swing state” list. There are many competitive seats in California, for instance (the result of being one of the few states where a non-partisan commission draws the districts) and on the east coast and upper Midwest too, often in suburban enclaves where Republicans have a shot to make gains.

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 2014’s competitive districts are roughly divided between the parties, which also makes for an interesting dynamic – or, maybe, a stalemate. Almost all of them have partisan patterns in past elections being close to even, or within just a few points – so a national wave (defined as a similar and substantial movement among swing voters everywhere, not just in marginal districts) would need to emerge for one party or the other to really take the bulk of these. 

It can also be self-fulfilling, in that recruitment and fundraising tend to go toward districts that start off with tighter partisan profiles. 

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 Obviously, this is a long range view. On the other hand, in this heavily partisan age, some things are easier to spot. And it may be neither budget politics nor Obamacare that sets the tone for the year’s races, but the economy, once again. Most still don’t see a recovery and the Democratic base remains especially hard-hit and slow to feel it– perhaps an added challenge for the party.