Handicapping the House

One of the most useful election handicapping tools (other than Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, of course), is Real Clear Politics‘ averaged election maps. Today, let’s look at the battle for control of the House. We’ll start with the bird’s-eye view.

That’s an awful lot of information to take in at a glance, and not really very useful. Let’s zoom in on the really important bit, the middle three-fifths of the names and numbers above the map.

I’ve cut off the two extremes in this zoom — the “Likely” seats for both parties. There won’t be much action there, although you should prepare yourself for some surprises as Election Day draws closer. The real action take place in the middle, from “Leans Dem” to “Toss-Ups” to “Leans Rep.” I should also mention that RCP wisely leaves out the bulk of House seats which just aren’t going to change hands, period. Although a few of those could make surprise appearances in the “Likely Dem” column later in the year.

To give you a better way to keep track, let’s go back to the 2008 presidential race. Rasmussen created a similar chart for that campaign, using states instead of congressional districts. States Bush had won in 2004 were in a red font; states Kerry won were in blue. And the set-up was similar — Safe D, Leans D, Toss-Ups, Leans R, Safe R.

From the get-go, there were lots of safe D states, some safe R states, and just a few toss-ups. And they were almost all red. As we got closer to the election, more red states shifted left — from Safe or Leans or Toss-Up, and closer to Safe D or Leans D. It’s a lovely, and quite visual, way to judge the momentum of a campaign. And here I’ve wasted almost 150 words describing it to you.

Anyway. Keeping all that in mind, let’s look at that first zoom again. There is not a single Republican seat in the “Leans Dem” column. There are three Democratic seats under “Leans Rep.” And of the 30 toss-ups, 29 of them are Democrats.

Twenty. Nine.

Of 30.

If the GOP can maintain its current momentum, you’ll see one or two or more of the Democrats’ Safe seats move right into the Leans column. And bunches of those Leans into Toss-Ups, and, yes, bigger bunches of the Tossers into Leans Rep. The less red you see on the left side (there are only two there now) and the more blue you see on the right, the greater the odds of the Republicans taking control of the House.

Right now, the Democrats seem likely to pick up two Republican seats, while losing 18 of their own, for a 16-seat loss. But the action is in the very middle, where it’s 29-to-1. The magic number for a change of power is 40, so the Republicans need to net 24 of those 30 competitive races. That is, as of right now. If blues keep moving right, the numbers become even friendlier.

And don’t forget that all of this gives GOP a money advantage — the Democrats have a lot more turf at stake. Part of that is because the Democrats simply cover a lot more turf; a 78-seat advantage isn’t easy to defend. But the bigger part is that lots of voters have lost trust in the Dems.

They only have a few months to win back that trust, while trying to keep any more of the blue text from shifting to the right side of the page.

Later, we’ll handicap the Senate, where the GOP faces longer odds.

“Handicapping” will be a semi-regular feature between now and the election, so stay tuned.

UPDATE: Speaking of the Senate, the Democratic caucus seems determined to lose friends and infuriate people in the House. Read:

On the heels of their improbable passage of a massive health care bill, Democrats are weighing an ambitious global warming bill that few lawmakers were even willing to consider just months ago.

“After seeing health care reform pass, it seems to me they can pass any bill they want if they set their minds to it,” said Marc Morano, a global warming skeptic and former top aide to Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.,

Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., are expected to unveil their bill the week of April 19 in order to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has suggested he’ll try to tackle it this year.

There’s a good reason Cap & Tax died in the Senate. After getting passed in the House as most egregious example of bribery, logrolling, and pork-barreling in congressional history*, nobody wanted to touch it. Plenty of congresscritters would gladly have changed their votes if they could have, after going home for August recess last summer. Barring that, their best hope was that the Senate would leave it be, and maybe voters would forget about it by November, 2010.

But if Reid & Co. want to revive Cap & Tax, I’ll bet you it’s worth at least additional ten seats for the GOP, all by its little old lonesome.

*Until very recently, that is.