Salena Zito

Late last week the premier polling site, FiveThirtyEight, tweeted somberly: “I don't think people fully comprehend how scary the generic ballot numbers are for Democrats.”

The biggest sway away from Democrats is coming from independent voters.

The latest Gallup results give Republicans the broadest spread over Democrats in the history of generic-ballot polling. It’s also the first time the GOP has hit the magic 50 percent in the history of Gallup’s generic ballot.

"For independent voters, it's like the rock-paper-scissors game,” says Democratic strategist Steve McMahon. “They want bi-partisan solutions and smart policy. But right now, a 'no' to more spending beats a 'yes' to good policy, and that's the environment Democrats now find themselves in."

Despite expectations, especially given today’s political environment and intense media coverage, congressional elections are not typically competitive.

On average, about 95 percent of House members win reelection. This high rate is not simply about an incumbent's advantages (name recognition, fundraising, weak challengers) but it is also about the large number of uncompetitive seats.

Gerrymandering (partisan and racial) and demographics have helped to concentrate political competition into about 20 percent of House districts, or some 90 seats.

“The national political parties prefer this situation because it means that there are fewer districts that they have to contest, and it also tends to reduce the electoral uncertainty,” explains Dr. Lara Brown, author of Jockeying for the American Presidency.

Brown, an expert in electoral competition, explains it this way: Assume that in those 90 competitive seats, half are held by each party. For one party to gain 40 seats, it must win nearly all the competitive seats held by the opposition while retaining nearly all its competitive seats.

“This is a formidable task,” she warns, “which is why the majority control of the House does not switch that often.”

This was not the case in the 19th century, when four of the more interesting House shifts occurred from 1888 to 1894.

In 1888 Benjamin Harrison beat Grover Cleveland (who, in 1884, became the first Democrat elected president since before the Civil War). Republicans also won the House, with 179 of its 332 seats.

In 1890 – Harrison's midterm election – Republicans lost their majority. When the new House convened, they held only 86 of 332 seats; Democrats held 238 and Populists, 8.

Two years later, after reapportionment and some redistricting to account for the addition of about 25 seats, Democrats lost a few seats to Republicans even though Cleveland beat Harrison for the presidency.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.