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How Down-Ballot Democrats Can Win Back Seats

If history proves correct, then losing the presidency would help Democrats regain Congressional, gubernatorial and state legislative seats.

Wikimedia Commons/ Lawrence Jackson
Could losing the presidency be the only way for Congressional Democrats to regain their footing? No one knows for sure, of course, but history offers a pretty clear answer: Yes.

We looked at how the parties fared under the last three presidents in U.S. Senate seats, U.S. House seats, governorships and state legislatures. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all suffered grievously down-ballot over the course of their tenures. For a quick illustration, here are a few highlights -- or, more accurately, lowlights:

  • Over six years, Bill Clinton lost 21 percent of the Democratic seats he started with in the Senate, 18 percent of the seats Democrats began with in the House, a whopping 43 percent of the Democratic governorships he started with and 27 percent of the state legislatures the Democrats fully controlled.

  • George W. Bush did a bit better over his six years, but the GOP hardly prospered. Republicans lost 2 percent of their Senate seats, 10 percent of their House seats, 24 percent of their governorships and 33 percent of their fully controlled state legislatures.

  • And Barack Obama has fared worse than either of his two immediate predecessors. Democratic losses in the Senate have so far reached 22 percent, 27 percent in the House, 36 percent in governorships and a stunning 59 percent in fully controlled state legislatures.
Historically speaking, an additional two more years in office doesn’t make a difference -- neither Clinton nor Bush was able to break into positive territory after their eighth year in office. (For a more comprehensive look at these president’s down-ballot losses, check out the full chart here.)

Even their predecessors had a similar experience, according to recent research by Larry Sabato and Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia. Looking at each two-term presidency since World War II, along with three spans featuring presidents of the same party (Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford), Sabato and Skelly found that the average decline per eight-year presidential period was 8.3 Senate seats, 36.4 House seats, 10.7 gubernatorial seats, 450.6 state legislative seats and 15.4 state legislative chambers.

Only one president managed to gain seats in any category over that entire time: Ronald Reagan gained six Republican state legislative seats over eight years. Even that victory, though, represents a paltry fraction of the 7,000-plus state legislative seats nationally. Sabato and Skelly call it a “sorry record.”

The takeaway is clear: Win the presidency, and you’ll lose everywhere else. “There is a presidential penalty in American politics,” said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist. “The Democrats’ best chance to take back Congress is to lose the White House in 2016.”

Why does this happen? The most benign explanation is that Americans tend toward centrism and choose to utilize the checks and balances available so they can moderate the president’s worst ideological excesses. (There is, of course, no evidence that voters purposely split their tickets.)

A less charitable explanation, however, is crankiness among the American voting public. Presidents try to accomplish things, but not everyone likes what they do. Even if they have support from the majority of voters, it’s always easier for critics -- even if they’re in the minority -- to block major initiatives than it is for supporters to pass them. Once a president’s agenda has been blocked, their supporters grow disappointed, joining critics in their unhappiness. The president’s overall approval ratings sag, and voters take out their anger on whichever party that controls the White House.

This pattern has long been evident in “six-year-itch” elections, when the president’s party has historically lost significant ground in Congress. Indeed, some erosion is to be expected, since most presidents come into office with at least modest coattails further down the ballot. Usually, this initial high-water mark is impossible to sustain amid the longer-term grind of politics.

“If the president was elected with a ‘wave’ at his or her back, as Reagan was in 1980 and Obama was in 2008, then it is almost impossible not to lose Senate seats six years hence,” said Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Making this dynamic worse is the tendency for presidents to face second-term scandals, from Watergate to Iran-Contra to Monica Lewinsky. Not only does this sour voters on the president’s party, but presidents who are fighting for their own political standing don’t have a lot of political capital to share with those from their party who serve at lower levels.

Still, if anything, the trend seems to be getting worse as politics in Washington -- and even in the states -- becomes more polarized.

The evidence? Obama, who has governed in a particularly polarized time, has fared significantly worse than his predecessors in down-ballot losses. In just six years, Obama has doubled, or more, the average two-term presidential losses from Truman through Bush, according to calculations by Sabato and Skelly.

Experts say Obama’s down-ballot legacy could cost Democrats far into the future. Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report recently wrote that even after the dramatic loss of the Senate majority in the 2014 midterm elections, the party’s losses at the state level “are a more profound problem for Democrats.” She noted that currently, 55 percent of all state legislative seats nationally are held by Republicans -- the largest share for the party since the 1920s. Republicans have total control over the legislature in 30 states, with the Democrats similarly situated in just 11 states.

If the Democrats can’t claw back control in more states between now and the next round of redistricting after the 2020 elections -- especially in such purple-to-blue states as Florida, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin -- the party won’t have much of a say in how the next round of redistricting goes. If the GOP consolidates and even extends its gains after 2030, Walter concludes, then the Democrats would be on a self-fulfilling spiral of political weakness until 2030 at earliest.

Of course, if history is any guide, the Democrats could start a bounceback in 2016 if they were to lose the White House -- the most common result for a party that wins two consecutive elections. But the complication for Democrats -- one might call it a good-news, bad-news dilemma -- is that Hillary Clinton has a good shot at winning the presidency two years from now. Could a third Democratic presidential term in a row make the party’s chances of rebounding down-ballot even worse?

“I think a lot depends on where she and her party move,” Olsen said. “It’s pretty clear to everyone except the progressive left that the mass of Americans do not want progressive left policies. It’s also pretty clear to everyone except Tea Party members that most Americans do not want a Tea Party agenda. If Hillary can move her party closer to the center-left consensus that characterized her husband’s second term, I think she could lead a Democratic renaissance. If she fails to do this, then I think we could see Democrats continue to bounce along on the floor at levels of support nationally not too different from what they have today.”

Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.
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