Earlier this year, President Barack Obama told donors at a California fundraiser that "It would be a whole lot easier to govern if I had Nancy Pelosi as speaker." A month later at a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fundraiser in Chicago, the president went further, saying Democrats have "a great chance of taking back the House."
At the August congressional break, how do the Democrats' chances of winning a majority in the House of Representatives stand? With 234 Republicans to 201 Democrats in the House today, Democrats need to pick up a net of 17 seats.
One difficulty for Mr. Obama is that there are few open seats. Ten Republicans and six Democrats have announced they are retiring or running for higher office. All of these 16 seats appear safely in the incumbent party's hands, making it difficult for either side to make significant gains.
The Cook Political Report now places the number of competitive seats at 36. A team of political analysts headed by University of Virginia Prof. Larry Sabato also lists 36 seats as tossups or leaning toward one party. The Rothenberg Political Report says 49 are tossups or leaning toward one party. By comparison, more than 100 congressional seats were in play during the 2010 midterms, most of them held by Democrats before the election.
Today, Democrats again hold more of the competitive seats. Mr. Cook lists eight Democratic seats as tossups and 16 Democratic seats leaning blue, compared with one Republican tossup and 11 Republican-held seats leaning red. Mr. Sabato has five Democratic and three Republican seats as tossups. Mr. Rothenberg has three Democratic seats and one Republican as pure tossups; five Democratic and five Republican seats as tossups, but tilting toward the incumbent party; and only one Republican seat leaning Democratic.
The number of Democratic seats at risk is likely to grow. There are 13 Democrats who won with 52% or less in 2012, all in districts Mr. Obama carried. Without a presidential campaign to help pull them to victory, some of these Democrats could go down.
Primary challenges could hurt Democrats more than Republicans. The Club for Growth's threat to recruit primary opponents for 10 Republican congressmen that the group has deemed insufficiently conservative has produced, so far, only one serious challenge—against Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho. On the other hand, there are at least six significant Democratic primary battles—including one against North Carolina Rep. Mike McIntrye, who won in the 7th District last fall by 654 votes—that could leave the winner weakened for the general election.
Then there's fundraising. Last month, all incumbents and challengers had to report how much they raised and their cash-on-hand as of June 30 to the Federal Election Commission. Cash-on-hand isn't everything in politics, but as the legendary 1960s California Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh once said: "Money is the mother's milk of politics." How big a war chest a candidate has now is an indicator of political health.
So what do the FEC reports show? The average House member of either party has roughly $555,000 in his or her campaign fund. The 17 Republican congressmen in districts carried by Mr. Obama have an average of $792,000, while the nine Democratic congressmen in districts carried by Mr. Romney have an average of $510,000. The 13 House Democrats who won with 52% or less have an average of $406,000 cash-on-hand.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has more money ($13.2 million) than the National Republican Congressional Committee ($11.3 million). But two million dollars won't give the Democrats a decisive financial advantage.
Things will doubtless change between now and the election. But at this moment, the relative paucity of competitive races points to a midterm where there are likely to be only modest changes in the House, most likely in the GOP's direction.
To win his majority, Mr. Obama will deploy the get-out-the-vote technologies used so deftly by his presidential campaign last fall. He's also counting on Sen. Harry Reid and Ms. Pelosi to deliver on a promised $125 million super-PAC effort. These would help. But if conditions next year are anything like this year—with a soft economy, low presidential approval numbers and problems implementing ObamaCare—tactics alone won't deliver a House Democratic majority.
For Mr. Obama to reach his goal, it will take Republicans shooting themselves—either by grossly overreaching or, more likely, by failing to articulate a positive conservative agenda for jobs, health care and prosperity.
A version of this article appeared August 15, 2013, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Can the Democrats Retake the House in 2014? and online at WSJ.com.