Sabato: Democrats Likely to Lose 23-41 House Seats Next Year

Larry Sabato is among the most respected election analysts working today. His election predictions are consistently among the most accurate around. In fact, I’ll let Sabato summarize his credentials:

In 2006, for example, a forecasting model that I developed predicted more than two months before Election Day that Democrats would gain 29 seats in the House of Representatives–a much larger pickup than most pundits and commentators were expecting at that time. The actual result was a 30 seat Democratic gain. A similar model that I developed for presidential elections has correctly predicted the winners of last five presidential contests more than two months before Election Day with an average margin of error of one percentage point.

Given Sabato’s track record, you’d be wise to pay attention when he says twitters something like this:

It now appears that Republicans will make above-average gains in the U.S. House of at least +23 seats. Average for first midterm election=17

The natural, normal state of midterm elections is opposition party gains. Only real question is size of gains. Crystal Ball says ‘sizeable’.

Head over to Sabato’s Crystal Ball site, and he and his colleagues provide more background:

Under what might be considered a worst case scenario for Democrats, if President Obama’s approval rating sinks into the low 40s next year, which would produce a net approval rating of around -10, and Republicans take a 5 point lead on the generic ballot, the GOP would still be expected to gain only 4 seats in the Senate. However, such a scenario would put Republicans in position to come very close to regaining control of the House with an expected pickup of 41 seats. On the other hand, if the President’s approval rating rebounds into the mid 60s, producing a net approval rating of around +30, and Democrats have a 10 point lead on the generic ballot, the GOP would be expected to lose one seat in the Senate and gain only 15 seats in the House. Based on the latest results (as of August 24) for the President’s net approval rating in the Gallup Poll (+16 percent) and the Democratic lead or deficit on the generic ballot (+6 percent), the predictions would be a Republican pickup of 1 seat in the Senate and 23 seats in the House.

So your magic numbers for a Republican takeover of the House are +5 GOP advantage on the generic Congressional ballot (it’s currently about even), and a net presidential approval rating of -10 (it’s currently around +10). Considering how far and how fast the Democrats have fallen, neither one of those seems out of reach.

Further, the idea of a big Republican wave is starting to become conventional wisdom, and for the most part it doesn’t matter whether people expect a 20 seat or 40 seat gain. Either one is enough to encourage strong Republican candidates to run this cycle, as opposed to a few years from now. Either is enough to make swing-seat Democrats worry about being associated with the liberal Obama agenda. And either is enough to make deep-pocketed donors wonder if it’s wise to bet on the Democrats this time around.

And there’s likely to be another notable effect: if Democrats start to think that their window for bold action is closing, many may choose to push extreme legislation now, rather than wait for a better opportunity that will never come. Right now government-run care, Card Check, cap-and-trade, immigration reform, much higher taxes, gay rights, and other issues – all seem to be largely off the table. If the liberal base of the Democratic party believes that it will be impossible to make progress on those in 2011, it will push many to pursue a more extreme agenda now.