November 5, 2013

Only 1 in 7 House districts were competitive in 2012

Congress_VictoryMarginsToday is Election Day 2013, but many eyes are already looking ahead to 2014. In the wake of the federal government shutdown and the narrow avoidance of a default, chatter has grown that Democrats might be able to take advantage of the GOP’s unpopularity and general anti-incumbent sentiment to regain control of the House — or at least cut into the Republicans’ 231-to-200 majority. (Four seats are vacant).

A swing of 18 House seats would be enough to give the Democrats control, which might not seem like much. But in House elections from 1992 to 2012, the median net party gain was just eight seats, according to Brookings’ Vital Statistics on Congress. And in midterm elections, the party holding the presidency usually loses seats: In only two of the 17 midterm elections since the end of World War II, in fact, did the president’s party gain seats (1998 and 2002).

In addition, only a few dozen seats are currently considered competitive. Independent analyst Stuart Rothenberg, for instance, puts the number at 51, almost equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, with the rest deemed safe, at least for now.

An examination of the 2012 election results shows just how few House races were at all close. Out of 435 seats total, in only 62 (14.3%) were the winner and runner-up separated by fewer than 10 percentage points. Democrats won 32 of those “close-ish” contests, Republicans 30.

In 143 of the 234 seats won by Republicans last year, the winner beat the runner-up by 20 percentage points or more; 148 of the 201 Democratic victories were by 20 points or more. Twenty Republicans and 11 Democrats either ran completely unopposed or had no major-party opponent. In nine districts (eight of them in California), the general election was between two candidates of the same party. (California, along with Louisiana and Washington, uses a “top-two” system rather than traditional party primaries. All candidates of all parties run in the first round; the top two finishers, regardless of party, proceed to the second round.)

Political scientists and analysts disagree on why so few House districts are competitive; some blame gerrymandering, while others say the district maps reflect a politically polarized America where people are more likely to live among those who think like they do. Regardless, House Speaker John Boehner (who won a 12th term unopposed last year) probably has more to fear from his own caucus than the voters in his district, while Democrats hoping to put Nancy Pelosi (re-elected with 70.2% of the vote) back in the speaker’s chair will have a high hill to climb.

Topics: Congress, 2012 Election

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


  1. B. Emanuelson4 years ago

    so, in order to win the house back, Dems need to hold on to their 26 own wobly districts while taking 18 of the 26 Repub toss ups. That’s indeed a tall order, and on the face of that, it seems unlikely.
    what really matters is how much money is gonna go into each of those races in terms of getting the vote out.

    I still don’t get how the repubs were able to flip the house by gaining 60 votes, or is that gerrymandering?

    Should’t Dems then focus more on winning state legislations?

  2. Thomas Bradley4 years ago

    In 2008 and 2010 the number of “safe” districts was about 70%. Only after the redistricting did the number suddenly increase. But not everywhere and not all the same amount. NY, for instance, stayed at about 70%. Texas, on the other hand, increased to 95%. The idea that people suddenly moved into more politically segregated areas seems absurd to me. I think it pretty safe to say that there has been an increase in the amount of gerrymandering going on.

  3. Richard DeSilver4 years ago

    Gerrymandering and The Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision are the two biggest reasons why the majority of the people in this country no longer have a voice in choosing their representatives.