Add a Zero
What is the value of one US House seat?
What is the value of one US House seat?
You could start with an estimate of how much control of the House is worth ($5B?) and the likelihood of partisan control being within relatively few seats (2% chance of control coming down to 1 seat? 10% chance within 5 seats?). Or you could look at how much is spent on elections.
Whatever your estimate, several trends are pushing the value upwards: increasingly narrow margins determining control of the House, a long-term trend of fewer competitive seats accelerated by the addition of more safe seats in redistricting, and massive growth in campaign spending (congressional campaign expenditures exceeded $8.7 Billion in 2020, more than doubling from 2016).
Oh, and a credible threat to democracy itself.
In last week’s release of “The Plot to Steal the Presidency,” Third Way adeptly summarizes those threats and makes a compelling call to action. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin pulled out a vital excerpt of the required remedy:
“Model: For the first time in US history, a party must mount two parallel presidential campaigns: one to win the election, and the other to prevent its theft.
Scope: Democrats will spend at least $1B on the campaign to reelect President Biden. They and other pro-democracy actors must also mount a campaign of similar size, scope, and seriousness to stop the coup plotters.”
This is a clear framing of the dual challenge facing democracy-defending Democrats — and an important market sizing.
More on the need for properly estimating the overall value of winning elections and saving democracy is below. But first, what our team was reading this week (and discussing — in person! — with most of us on the ground in Ohio, which you can read about here, here, and here).
Sunday Reading in the Big Tent
1. Must Read: Blake Hounshell and Leah Askarinam in the New York Times on Ruy Teixeira and The Liberal Patriot:
“Now, as President Biden sinks in the polls, Teixeira finds himself fighting against what he says is a caricature of his famous book. His Substack newsletter, The Liberal Patriot, delivers “no-holds-barred, reality-based analysis,” unafraid to take on what he calls a “race-essentialist” dogma that is dominating the Democratic Party.”
2. Must Listen: Niskanen Center’s Matt Grossman interviews Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan on The Hyper-Involved vs. The Disengaged, the other major divide driving American politics (and one that we encounter every day in Ohio):
“… they find journalists overestimate polarization because they hear from the politically obsessed, who co-inhabit bubbles where politics is always central. For most Americans, partisanship is a relatively unimportant identity. What looks like dislike for the other party is actually disdain for politicians and people who are constantly talking about politics.”
3. Sean Sullivan and Tyler Pager in the Washington Post with a profile of Ron Klain, in which the Biden White House Chief of Staff defends his significant Twitter usage:
“I find being on Twitter useful as an early-warning system of things that, to be honest, reporters are talking about. So, a little way to kind of get a sense of what’s out there. What our activists are talking about. What our critics are talking about. What Republicans are talking about.”
Flashback to the Biden campaign in 2020:
“We turned off Twitter,” CBS quoted a campaign aide saying. “We stayed away from it. We knew that the country was in a different headspace than social media would suggest.”
And also noted in a post-election NBC News column:
“The magnification of the influence of the extremist wing is clear on Twitter, whose discourse is dominated and distorted by this fringe. Analysis has shown just how different online progressives are from the majority of Democrats. Democrats on Twitter are far less likely to be Black, moderate, concerned about political correctness, lack a college degree or attend protests. Luckily, the Biden campaign understood that.”
Has our luck run out?
So how much is the House worth?
After reading the Third Way deck (seriously, read it here), you might be inclined to add a zero to whatever your estimate is. It’s not hyperbolic to argue that the future prospect of democracy itself will likely come down to whichever party controls Congress on January 6th, 2025. This means that valuing the House (and each competitive seat within it) isn’t simply an exercise in appraising one party’s policy agenda relative to the other’s — it’s about putting a price tag on American democracy itself.
We frequently refer to an internal chart comparing the declining share of competitive House seats (as rated by Cook Political report, on the y-axis) to growth in congressional spending (size of the bubble). Over the last two decades, spending on congressional elections has ballooned — to $8.7 Billion in 2020, more than double four years prior — while the share of competitive seats has decreased by 60%.
Exacerbators like polarization, gerrymandering, and money in politics further mean that control of Congress is increasingly decided in the margins. Those factors have led to a highly competitive division of partisan power in Congress. For most of American history, the value of one House seat would not be significant given how far parties were from control of the chamber. This new reality should be driving up the estimates of what a marginal House seat is worth.
One of the most valuable activities democrats (both lowercase and uppercase “D”) can undertake in light of these trends — and the ballooning value of each winnable seat — is to invest diligently in putting more competitive seats on the map.
Making more seats competitive does not only increase Democrats’ chances of defending democracy, it also:
Changes the incentives for incumbent Republicans to undermine democracy: the prospect of a significant challenge brings with it an increased likelihood that those who have acted against democracy will be held accountable for their actions.
Bolsters democracy in a straightforward way: it gives ~750,000 residents of each newly-competitive House district a chance to make their vote count when it otherwise wouldn’t. This de facto enfranchisement has readily-apparent value.
Positive externalities aside, the core focus of each new investment is, quite simply, winning. None of these trends show any sign of slowing down. The investment thesis for Democrats is growing clearer by the day: the value of adding competitive districts (which will now be the same for a decade) is only going up.
We just need to know what that value is — and then act accordingly.