With the shocking Democratic win in the Alaska Special House Election last week, and another string of polls that are pointing to a clear Democratic advantage nationally, there’s been a renewed chatter about whether or not U.S. House election odds – oft written off as a Republican gain, especially before the Supreme Court overturned abortion rights – is actually in play.
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In 2020, on the old House lines (which have now been redrawn), Democrats won 222 seats, four above the 218 required for a majority, making the GOP need five seats to win the House.
Obviously, with the new lines, it’s hard to make a true comparison of the state of play, but in national aggregate, the maps are roughly in the same partisan proportion as the old ones.
If you just go by the number of seats won by Joe Biden, there’s actually a slight increase in Biden-won seats, from 224 on the old maps to 226 on the new ones, which means that so long as the environment is good for Democrats, there are enough seats they can win to keep the majority.
Throw in the few Trump won seats that could be winnable with their Democratic incumbents – most notably Iowa 3rd, Maine 2nd, Ohio 9th, and Pennsylvania 8th – and Democrats have a playing field with enough seats that the path to the House majority exists.
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The Case For Republicans
The case for them in U.S. House election odds starts with the historical tendency for parties in the White House to lose a ton of seats at midterms, with the party of the White House losing House seats at all but two midterms in the post-war period.
Throw in the fact that Joe Biden’s approval rating, while substantially increased in recent weeks, is still on the soft side, and you get a mess that really ought to see the GOP not just win the five seats necessary to win the House, but to get a fairly sizable blowout.
In a normal midterm, the GOP should be winning every narrowly Biden-won seat easily – seats like the old New York 19th, won by Biden by a mere 1.5%, or the current versions of the Virginia 2nd, Michigan 7th and 8th, Pennsylvania 7th, amongst others – while putting up substantial challenges in more blue seats.
Seats like Minnesota 2nd, Washington 8th, Virginia 7th, and Kansas 4th should be less easy wins, but this tier of seats – slightly more favorable to Biden than the nation as a whole – should be in the GOP’s column if the vaunted wave is on the way.
And even stretch targets should be in play, and while not every one should flip, the GOP should be looking at a series of Biden-won seats where his margin was north of 10% and have credible chances of flipping them.
That’s what the polls and the talk from campaigns before the Supreme Court decision to overturn abortion rights pointed to – national GOP leads big enough to wipe away the first tier of Democratic seats easily, the second tier were tossups, and the GOP had high hopes in a series of Biden +10-14 seats.
And then the Supreme Court took that status quo and threw a grenade into the foxhole by overturning Roe.
The Case For Democrats
The reason I brought up the old New York 19th – a Biden +1.5 seat that doesn’t exist in the same form anymore – is that we had a special election there two weeks ago, and Democrats won it by more than Biden did in 2020.
Throw in Alaska, where Sarah Palin managed to blow a race in a Trump +10 state, and you have two successive weeks where Democrats have won seats they have no business winning in anything resembling a red wave.
Whatever caveats you want to toss on either of those races – Palin was super unpopular! Democrats turn out more in special elections! Democrats had competitive primaries in the new seats that make up the old New York 19th – those seats should have gone red in anything resembling a red environment.
Right now, the Generic Ballot shows Democrats up a point, per the 538 average, and there has been much more upside in that average than downside in recent weeks. Even some of Biden’s worst pollsters during the August 2021-June 2022 malaise – namely Quinnipiac and the Wall Street Journal poll – have shown quite good results for Democrats now.
CBS’ House projection currently sits at 209 Democratic seats – but that projection is based on an R+2 Generic Ballot, meaning that a neutral environment would probably see Democrats hold the House, per their calculations.
Democrats also mostly have incumbents running again in their key seats, and those incumbents generally have large cash on hand advantages, meaning that they’ll be able to outspend their opponents and get localized advantage even above the national mood – a mood which is getting increasingly less angry at Democrats.
Throw in the fact that the usual midterm backlash comes from people being mad at radical changes, and the fact that the GOP are the drivers of the most radical change of the Biden era, and you’re seeing a mostly abnormal midterm pattern.
No, this is not an argument that Democrats are favored to win the House. There is a lot of time between now and November, and in theory things could fall out for Democrats again.
That said, the two midterms in recent vintage where the party holding the White House gained seats are instructive – 1998 and 2002. In 2002, Bush had high approvals in the aftermath of 9/11 and even after the tech bubble burst, by 2002 he had a growing economy and low inflation and a fairly hapless Democratic Party to run against – which, the last part certainly applies to the modern House GOP.
The 1998 comparison makes even more sense, though – Bill Clinton was in the process of being impeached for his sex life, and the voters, while not a fan of Clinton’s sexual proclivities and infidelity, were more mad at the GOP’s massive overreach.
In the same way, yes, voters are not big fans of extremely lax abortion laws in general, but instead of the GOP arguing for a humane and reasonable abortion framework – say, 15 weeks with ironclad exemptions, and no talk of banning birth control or contraceptives – then it’s possible, if not likely, that there would have been a fairly benign reaction to the Court’s decision. But that’s not what’s happened.
The GOP have been passing state abortion bans that have created extremely nauseating, horrific headlines for them about the victims of their bans, and abortion isn’t fading from the national mood like the (mostly male) commentariat was prepared for it to.
More bluntly, Democrats keep beating expectations, their polls are not getting worse or even getting better, and more and more Democratic campaigns are starting to act like they can win seats that months ago weren’t even on the board.
This is not an argument Democrats will emerge victorious from U.S. House election odds, but it is an argument that they have a sizably better chance than the odds say. And so long as that is the case, it’s worth a shot – just like New York 19th was, which worked out well for those willing to trust that the post-Dobbs trend would continue.