Obama’s Insubstantial Coattails

obama on election nightEvery down-ballot Democrat has a similar dream scenario for the 2012 elections: the economy miraculously improves, unemployment numbers plummet and the Republicans nominate an über-conservative (read: unelectable) Presidential candidate.  Such a scenario could energize the Democratic base, attract independent support and result in overwhelming success for Democrats on every level of the government.

Such a perfect storm is overwhelmingly improbable for several reasons.  Perhaps the most surprising, however, is that even if President Obama coasts to reelection, history tells us that this is unlikely to be reflected in down-ballot elections.

According to political analyst Charlie Cook,  “Presidential reelection coattails do not exist.  Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats only picked up 11 seats in 1936, Dwight Eisenhower’s Republicans lost two in 1956; Republicans under Richard Nixon picked up 12 seats in 1972 and 14 seats in 1984 under Ronald Reagan.”

Indeed, in exceedingly few recent elections (especially reelections) has the President’s party won big on the Congressional level.

“Some of us will also recall how Republicans made major gains during President Reagan’s landslide 1980 victory,” wrote Harry Enten for Sabato’s Crystal Ball.  “But for every 1980, there is a 1988.  President George H.W. Bush triumphed in 1988, but House Republicans actually lost three seats.  More recently in 1996, President Clinton cruised to an easy win, but Republicans lost only a handful of seats and retained control of the House.”

In 2012, the Democrats need 25 seats to reclaim the House.  On the surface, this does not appear to be an impossible task, especially considering the last three Congressional elections (all of which involved one party winning a substantial number of seats).  But, as Enten noted, “In the 10 elections since 1952 in which the president’s party did not control the House, the largest seat gain for either party has been 21.  It would seem that in the past 60 years voters have been unwilling to reward or blame either party too greatly when faced with split government.  They tend to like the status quo.”

Furthermore, as University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato pointed out, “In the past 40 years, the largest number of House seats gained by the winning incumbent’s party was 16 in 1984, a year in which Ronald Reagan won reelection by a landslide.  You have to go all the way back to 1964 to find an election in which the winning incumbent’s party gained at least 25 seats in the House.”  (The 1964 race also featured an unelected incumbent, Lyndon Johnson, and occurred just one year after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.)

Hopeful Democrats, of course, do have one relevant example to point: Harry Truman.  Truman, who faced anemic polling numbers and a weakened economy, focused his campaign on the “do-nothing” Republican Congress, and not only won a full term as President, but saw Democrats take control of both chambers of Congress, winning a total of 75 seats in the House and 9 in the Senate.

Indeed, in 2012 Republicans will be defending their largest Congressional majority in generations.  Moreover, straight-ticket voting is far more common today than it was in past elections.  The poor economy could — like in 1948 — spur voters to punish incumbents in the Republicans House, returning a fully Democratic Congress even if they elect one of the President’s Republican challengers.

Regardless, it appears likely that the Congressional Democrats may be damned if they do and damned if they don’t.  If President Obama is blamed for the poor economy, enthusiasm could be leeched from his potential supporters and an excited Republican base could overwhelm Democrats in the House and Senate.  But even if President Obama is reelected handily, there are significant historical data to suggest that this support would not be reflected in Congressional races.

A number of other factors could, of course, come into play and allow the Democrats to keep the White House and Senate and have significant success in the House.  For now, however, Congressional Democrats would be wise not to count on President Obama to carry them over the finish line on Election Day.


Published by Eric Stern

Eric Stern, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is Editor-in-Chief of The Politic.

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