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Democrats: Don't hold your breath for 2014

President Obama desperately wants his party to win back the House next year, and if you wonder why—well, the sequester should give you about 1.2 trillion

President Obama desperately wants his party to win back the House next year, and if you wonder why—well, the sequester should give you about 1.2 trillion reasons.

In today’s politics, with the two parties sorted out ideologically and philosophically, polarization is a given. And when there’s divided government—which we’ve had since the 2010 midterms—that polarization can be paralyzing. Just compare the blizzard of major legislative feats that Obama and Democrats racked up in his first two years in office—the stimulus, Wall Street reform, healthcare, ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell—with how little has happened since then.

So Obama has figured out that if he’s ever going to regain the legislative momentum he had in 2009 and 2010 and really tackle the biggest items on his party’s wish list, he’s going to need unified government again—which means winning back the House in 2014. Which means, as the Washington Post reported the other day, a full-fledged, coordinated push by the White House and Democrats on Capitol Hill to pick up 17 seats two Novembers from now.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with trying to win an election, and I get the impulse behind this, but here’s a friendly suggestion to Democrats: Don’t get your hopes up. Winning back the House next year would be a truly unprecedented achievement for Democrats, one that’s very hard to see happening for three reasons:

1. History. Midterm elections just aren’t kind to the White House Party. When you look back at past midterms, it’s not as if the president’s party has won big in some and lost big in others. The president’s party almost always loses seats—sometimes a lot of them, sometimes not that many. And in the rare instances when the president’s party has actually made gains, they’ve been modest. For good reason, the political world was stunned when Democrats gained House seats when Bill Clinton was president in 1998—but the net gain was just 5 seats, not even one-third of what Democrats need next year.

2. Geography: The Democratic coalition—nonwhites, millennials, college-educated voters—is growing in numbers, but geographically it’s shrinking, packed in more than ever to cities and metropolitan areas. Michael Dukakis actually won more counties in 1988 than Obama won last year. In other words: Democrats can win statewide races and the presidency, but when you cut the country up into 435 House districts, Republicans are going to have a big advantage.

3. Turnout: That same new Democratic coalition has shown up in droves twice now, in 2008 and 2012. But it was nowhere to be seen in 2010, or in the key races of 2009. Until, and unless, Democrats can generate presidential-type excitement in non-presidential years, they’re going to be at a further disadvantage in midterms.

Again, just because something hasn’t happened before doesn’t mean it never will happen. But what Obama is hoping to pull off in 2014 would be truly extraordinary. And even if Democrats do somehow win back the House, there’s still the matter of the Senate. Without 60 votes there, even controlling the House won’t matter that much.

So yes, it makes sense for Obama and his party to push hard in 2014. As long as they keep in mind the long odds they’re up against, and have a Plan B in mind…