Democrats Need Not Panic Over Down-Ballot Trend
Does the poor down-ballot track record experienced by Democratic candidates not named Barack Obama mean that going into the next cycle the Democratic Party is in shambles? That the Age of Obama is little more than a cult of personality masking the party’s fundamental unpopularity?
Some political observers—liberal and conservative—think so. Last week’s election results in Kentucky and Virginia “reveal the Democratic Party's peril," declared Vox’s Matthew Yglesias. “Under President Obama,” he added, “Democrats have lost 900+ state legislature seats, 12 governors, 69 House seats, 13 Senate seats.” Added former Republican leadership aide Rory Cooper in a much-retweeted Twitter post: “That's some legacy.”
That’s one view. Here’s another: Democrats are not in trouble heading into 2016—far from it. What has been happening is merely a particularly dramatic example of what bedevils most presidents: midterm elections.
Every U.S. president who served two full terms since 1952 has watched his party lose at least one house of Congress during a midterm. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, unlike Obama, suffered the shock of both houses flipping in a single election.
Pendulum swings are also the norm in state-level races. Democrats picked up eight governors’ mansions during Ronald Reagan’s first term, for a total of 35. After the off-year elections in Bill Clinton’s first term, it was the Republicans who had 31. Then Democrats took back the gubernatorial majority after Bush’s second midterm.
The same is true for state legislative races. The Democrats lost 524 seats under Bill Clinton, creating an even split of the more than 7,000 posts between the two major parties. Then Republicans lost 324 seats by the end of Bush presidency, giving Democrats the edge. Under Obama, the tables have turned yet again.
Granted, as Larry Sabato’s team recently tabulated for Politico, Obama’s midterm losses are the most severe of any two-termer of the last 70 years. That is mainly because he had two atrocious midterms instead of just one.
Other presidents were spared a double whammy for various reasons. The spike in Bush’s popularity after the 9/11 attacks buoyed the GOP in 2002. The 1998 impeachment drive backfired on the Republicans and saved Clinton from a “six-year itch.”
Furthermore, as RealClearPolitics’ David Byler has documented, much of Democratic bleeding in the state legislatures represents the final chapter of the conservative South’s partisan realignment from Democrat to Republican. On top of that, Democrats simply failed to prioritize fundraising for these races in recent years. But for 2016, contrary to the Yglesias charge that the Democrats are “in denial” about their predicament, the party has set a fundraising goal that would break its record for state legislative races.
Comparisons of Obama to other two-term presidents are also a little premature. We don’t yet know what Obama’s final down-ballot tally will be. We have one-more non-midterm election to go.
And bad second-term midterm does not predict how the next set of elections will turn out, anyway. Ronald Reagan lost the Senate in 1986, yet still handed the White House to his vice president, while leaving office with high job approval ratings. Franklin Roosevelt, while not technically losing Democratic control of Congress during his long reign, had a terrible 1938 midterm that drove the conservative wing of his party into creating an informal working majority with Republicans. Nevertheless, he won a third term two years later (and a fourth term as well).
More importantly, both FDR and Reagan were ideologically transformational presidents. Each altered the ideological trajectory of America for a generation. Their second-term midterm backlashes were mere speed bumps.
The Democratic Party’s hope is that their younger, multicultural electoral coalition is better suited for winning high-turnout presidential races than low-turnout off-year contests, which still allows them to keep moving the country in their preferred direction. Some critics of this approach say the presidency is not enough, and that success in state legislatures is the key to enacting a more longstanding party agenda.
That’s debatable. My own view is that the president, more than any single person, drives the national agenda. Opposition party resistance at the federal and state level may cause much grief and frustration, but presidents play offense while everyone else plays defense.
Consider that even with so many Republicans holding power under Obama, Obamacare has been fully implemented in most states, 17 states have raised the minimum wage since 2013, and major executive actions have been taken to protect workers’ rights and stop climate change.
Acknowledging the power of the presidency is not an argument for down-ballot complacency. More wins are better than fewer. And the 2020 state legislative races are especially critical because those winners will get to redraw the congressional district lines. House Republicans protected by gerrymandering today—thanks to GOP state wins in 2000 and 2010—could be made vulnerable in a few years time.
But 2015 is not 2020. Democrats have three more elections to reverse the state legislative leader board, and as you can see above, big swings are far from unprecedented. To argue that the Democrats are in “deep trouble” based on off-year elections flies in the face of history.