For all sorts of good reasons, the main focus of political analysts looking ahead to next year’s election is an epochal presidential election, with much of the residual attention being devoted to a Senate battle that will determine whether the presidential winner is or isn’t in a good position to get executive branch and judicial nominees confirmed. But all 435 U.S. House seats are up in 2020 as well, with Democrats defending a 236-199 margin.
As I noted last month, history suggests it will be very difficult for Republicans to make the net gains of 19 seats necessary to flip the House, which hasn’t changed hands in a presidential election since Dwight D. Eisenhower’s landslide win in 1952. But on the other hand, there are 31 House Democrats in districts Trump carried in 2016 (and after 2018, just three Republicans in Clinton ’16 districts), so it would be wise to keep an eye on the House races.
The standard metric for the direction of national House races is the congressional generic ballot, which simply measures voters’ partisan intentions in the next House election. It’s a reasonably, if not precisely, accurate predictor of the national House popular vote. In 2018, the RealClearPolitics final polling average for the generic ballot gave Democrats a 7.3 percent advantage, and Democrats wound up winning total House votes by 8.4 percent in picking up 41 seats and taking control of the House.
The current RealClearPolitics averages for 2020 show Democrats with a 7.7 percent advantage in the generic ballot. FiveThirtyEight, which adjusts for pollster quality and partisan bias, shows Democrats up a more modest 5.8 percent. In some respects House Democrats are in a similar position today as House Republicans were in 2016 when they held a solid majority in a close presidential election year, and the GOP lost six net seats while winning the national House popular vote by 1.1 percent. Like Republicans then, House Democrats are a bit overexposed in competitive districts: the Cook Political Report currently shows competitive races in 35 Democratic-held seats and just 18 Republican-held seats. But so long as they are leading as much in the generic ballot as they were two years ago, the odds of Nancy Pelosi keeping her gavel are high.