Historical Perspective on Mid-Term Elections

(This diary is more of a rant on my part — a response, if you will, to some of the fatalistic analysis I see on a lot of progressive sites these past several weeks …)

By now we all should know how the tiniest of election margins can sometimes have gigantic political consequences.  After all, a 537-vote margin in Florida in 2000 ushered in eight long and painful years for this country and for the world.  When looking at the 2010 mid-terms it has become the norm for Democrats as of late to look at the upcoming elections only in terms of defense.  A lot of our focus seems to be just on minimizing losses – by trying to figure out how not to lose this or that particular seat.  There seems to be a lot of emphasis on looking at depressing poll numbers (a new one showing a Democrat losing in this or that particular state seems to pop up almost every day from Rasmussen) and on the seemingly incessant reminder from all quarters that “the party in power always loses seats in mid-term elections.”  What’s missing, in my opinion, is an equal focus on offense for the Democratic Party and realizing that nothing is inevitable and nine months is still an eternity in politics.  I will use House races in this diary to demonstrate what I’m talking about …

Historically, in most mid-terms, the losing party, has nevertheless almost always managed to score some victories that run against the prevailing political currents.  I got the maps below from Wikipedia, but I had to make a number of corrections as some of the information was not accurate.  I only include the “first-term mid-terms” here, as “second-term mid-terms” have a little different dynamic due to the “six-year itch” that often works more strongly against the party in power … but you can easily look up all this information yourself if you want more details about particular elections in the past (a note re. the maps: Truman wasn’t elected in 1944, but, for all practical purposes, 1946 was like the middle of his first term).



To complement the maps above, here are unemployment figures for November of each year (for 1934 and 1946, only yearly averages are provided):

1934: 21.7

1946: 3.9

1954: 5.3

1962: 5.7

1966: 3.6

1970: 5.9

1978: 5.9

1982: 10.8

1990: 6.2

1994: 5.6

2002: 5.9

My point here is that if we do go on offense (as well as defense) and a truly anti-Democratic wave materializes, our losses will more likely be significantly smaller than if we’re just playing defense alone.  Oftentimes, surprising and counter-intuitive victories can be the factor that separates a “loss” from a “wipeout”.  In fact, when looking at House elections in the middle of a President’s first term over the last 75 years or so, you can see that in most cases, losses in certain geographic areas have more often than not been offset by wins in other areas.  

For example, in 1970 Nixon’s GOP lost seats in 16 different states, but the losses were somewhat minimized by GOP wins in states as varied as California, Montana, Colorado, Oklahoma, Virginia and New York.  In 1978, Carter’s Democrats lost seats scattered across 15 different states, but those losses were offset by Democratic gains in states as diverse as Michigan, Washington, South Dakota, Connecticut, Maryland and Florida.  Going back to 1934, FDR’s losses in parts of the midwest were actually more than offset by some big wins in the northeast, particularly in Pennsylvania where 11 (sic) Democrats took over previously GOP-held seats (without Pennsylvania, the Democrats would have had a net loss of seats that year !  Incidentally, Pennsylvania also added Democrats in 1932 and 1936 House elections, going from having 33 Republicans and 3 Democrats prior to the 1932 election to 7 Republicans and 27 Democrats after the 1936 election).

In fact, in all of U.S. History there has only been one election of any kind (mid-term or not) where the “losing” party did not gain a single Senate, House or Governor’s seat from the “winning” party: 2006.  (In 2006, the GOP did not take over a single seat from the Democrats in Senate, House or Governor’s races; the next closest was 1938, which was a big GOP year, and the Democrats did not pick up a single Republican Senate or House seat, but they still managed to take the Governorships of California, Maryland and North Dakota away from the GOP.  Even during the 1994 GOP landslide, Democrats took over four previously Republican-held House seats and also picked up the Governorship of Alaska.)

Anyhow, I hope you get the picture re. how some elections can have more than just one political current going.  (1982 has to be looked at in a slightly different prism, in my view.  The 11% unemployment in November of that year was certainly the main factor.  But also, a new set of districts due to reapportionment and redistricting was a factor as well.  Phil Burton’s gerrymander in California was probably by itself instrumental in an additional six Democratic seats.)  This aspect of elections (dealing with political counter-currents) is just one point I want to make.  Perhaps more importantly, is how we handle elections which indeed seem like they will turn out to be wave elections.

Some first-term mid-terms are indeed wave elections.  1994 is perhaps the best example (I personally like 2006 better, but again, I’m trying to limit this diary to “first-term mid-terms”), and we often think of 1994 when comparing it to 2010.  But even in a worst-case scenario, like 1994, it is imperative that we study the history.  Because — even in that GOP landslide, a relatively small number of votes may have made the difference between a “loss” and a “wipeout”.   Now, this part is not shown on the map above — on which 1994 indeed looks like the wipeout that it was.  But if you look behind the picture, so to speak, you can see that even in the landslide, a little more effort on the part of Democrats may have made a huge difference:

First of all … the power of incumbency.  The following Democratic incumbents won contested elections in 1994 in districts that were quite conservative (ones which Bill Clinton lost by 1% or more in 1992); the incumbents’ winning margin is listed (please note that only districts that were contested by a Republican are shown):

AL-3: Glen Browder 63.6 – 36.4

AL-5: Robert Cramer 50.5 – 49.5

GA-9: Nathan Deal 57.9 – 42.1 (Deal changed parties after the election)

IN-3: Timothy Roemer 55.2 – 44.8

KY-6: Scotty Baesler 58.8 – 41.2

MI-10: David Bonior 62.2 – 37.7

MS-3: Sonny Montgomery 67.6 – 32.4

MS-4: Michael Parker 68.5 – 31.5 (Parker changed parties after the election)

MS-5: Gene Taylor 60.1 – 39.9

MO-4: Ike Skelton 67.8 – 32.3

NC-8: Bill Hefner 52.4 – 47.6

ND-AL: Earl Pomeroy 52.3 – 45.0

PA-6: Tim Holden 56.7 – 43.3

SC-5: John Spratt 52.1 – 47.8

SD-AL: Tim Johnson 59.8 – 36.6

TX-4: Ralph Hall 58.8 – 39.8

TX-11: Chet Edwards 59.2 – 40.8

TX-14: Greg Laughlin 55.6 – 44.4 (Laughlin changed parties after the election)

TX-17: Charles Stenholm 53.6 – 46.3

UT-3: Bill Orton 59.0 – 39.9

VA-2: Owen Pickett 59.0 – 40.9

VA-4: Norman Sisisky 61.6 – 38.4

VA-5: Lewis Payne 53.3 – 46.7

In most cases, the above incumbents won rather comfortably.  On the other hand, the following districts were open seats in 1994 and went GOP — despite being not as conservative as the first group above (all the districts below were won by Clinton in 1992, or Clinton came within 1% or less of winning in the case of KS-2 and NC-5):

IL-11: George Sangmeister, retired

KS-2: Jim Slattery, resigned to run for Governor

ME-1: Thomas Andrews, resigned to run for Senate

MI-8: Bob Carr, resigned to run for Senate

MN-1: Tim Penny, retired

NC-5: Stephen Neal, retired

NJ-2: William Hughes, retired

OH-18: Douglas Applegate, retired

OK-2: Mike Synar, defeated in primary

OR-5: Michael Kopetski, retired

TN-3: Marilyn Lloyd, retired

TN-4: Jim Cooper, resigned to run for Senate

WA-2: Al Swift, retired

It is quite likely that many of the seats above would have stayed Democratic if the incumbent had not retired.  If, theoretically, all 13 stayed in Democratic hands, then there would have been no “Republican Revolution” in 1994, as the Democrats would have maintained an effective majority (with a 217 D – 217 R split, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont).

Therefore, it is imperative that retirements be minimized.  This is perhaps already obvious.  

The second point … always be in fighting mode.  A lot of House districts were lost in 1994 by relatively small margins.  All the districts listed below were won by the GOP in 1994 by about 6 points or less (most, though not all, were Democratic incumbents who were defeated):

WI-1: Mark Neuman (R) 49.4 – Peter Barca (D) 48.8, margin 1120 votes

NC-4: Fred Heineman (R) 50.4 – David Price (D) 49.6, margin 1215

NV-1: John Ensign (R) 48.5 – James Bilbray (D) 47.5, margin 1436

CA-22: Andrea Seastrand (R) 49.3 – Walter Capps (D) 48.5, margin 1563

NE-2: Jon Christensen (R) 49.9 – Peter Hoagland (D) 49.0, margin 1766

NJ-8: William Martini (R) 49.9 – Herbert Klein (D) 48.6, margin 1833

KY-1: Ed Whitfield (R) 51.0 – Thomas Barlow (D) 49.0, margin 2462

OH-6: Frank Cremeans (R) 50.9 – Ted Strickland (D) 49.1, margin 3402

WA-5: George Nethercutt (R) 50.9 – Tom Foley (D) 49.1, margin 3983

PA-21: Phil English (R) 49.5 – Bill Leavens (D) 46.9, margin 4643

CA-49: Brian Bilbray (R) 48.5 – Lynn Schenk (D) 46.0, margin 4686

GA-7: Bob Barr (R) 51.9 – George “Buddy” Darden (D) 48.1, margin 5287

WA-9: Randy Tate (R) 51.8 – Mike Kreidler (D) 48.2, margin 5382

AR-4: Jay Dickey (R) 51.8 – Jay Bradford (D) 48.2, margin 6099

WA-1: Rick White (R) 51.7 – Maria Cantwell (D) 48.3, margin 6444

OK-2: Tom Coburn (R) 52.1 – Virgil Cooper (D) 47.9, margin 6536

OR-5: Jim Bunn (R) 49.8 – Catherine Webber (D) 46.8, margin 7354

NC-3: Walter Jones (R) 52.7 – Martin Lancaster (D) 47.3, margin 7451

MA-6: Peter Torkildsen (R) 50.5 – John Tierney (D) 47.4, margin 7471

PA-13: Jon Fox (R) 49.4 – Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (D) 45.2, margin 8181

IN-8: John Hostettler (R) 52.4 – Frank McCloskey (D) 47.6, margin 8672

NH-2: Charlie Bass (R) 51.4 – Dick Swett (D) 46.0, margin 8878

TX-9: Steve Stockman (R) 51.9 – Jack Brooks (D) 45.7, margin 9710

ME-1: James Longley (R) 51.9 – Dennis Dutremble (D) 48.1, margin 9943

OH-19: Steve LaTourette (R) 48.5 – Eric Fingerhut (D) 43.5, margin 10296

NY-1: Michael Forbes (R) 52.5 – George Hochbrueckner (D) 46.5, margin 10345

KS-4: Todd Tiahrt (R) 52.9 – Dan Glickman (D) 47.1, margin 12287

IA-4: Greg Ganske (R) 52.5 – Neal Smith (D) 46.4, margin 13111

That’s 28 districts above, or more than 50% of the total GOP gain of 54 seats.  If those districts went Democratic instead of GOP (and I’m not using the word “switched”, because some of the above, like CA-22, PA-21, AR-4 and MA-6, were GOP-held prior to 1994), the Democrats would have remained in the majority with a 232 D- 202 R margin, instead of winding up with a losing margin of 230 R – 204 D.

If only the first 13 districts on the list hadn’t gone GOP, the Democrats would have maintained a majority (217 D – 217 R split, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont).  The first 13 districts on the list have an average Republican – Democratic margin of only 50.1% – 48.3%.  This is all a theoretical exercise, of course, because there were other factors like party-switchers, but the point remains that the results in even a dozen or so close-margin seats can have profound political consequences.  The combined GOP over Democratic margin in the first 13 districts above is only 38,778 voters.  So, in effect (and yes, theoretically) if about 19,400 voters (out of over 71 million votes cast in House elections in 1994) had voted differently, there would have been no “Republican Revolution” that year.

And yes, I realize that many Democrats won their races by the same slight margins that year, and so the GOP gains could have been even larger — but that is not the point.   My point is that if the political climate was overall just a little better for the Democrats that year (just a few points) the whole election could have gone differently (and the climate could have been a little better if Bill Clinton made some better choices) – and/or if the Democrats had made just a little more of an effort (better candidates, more funds, less retirements, better turnout, etc.), it may have gone differently … According to one analysis, http://archive.fairvote.org/re… , most eligible voters did not participate in the 1994 election.  “… only 17 of the 56 Republicans who won seats held by Democrats (in 1994) had higher vote totals than losing Republicans had won in those districts in 1992 suggest the impact of voter turnout.”

The bottom line — even if we’re looking at a bad year, we should not be afraid to go on the offense in states and districts across the country.  Chances are that minimizing retirements as well as having good Democratic candidates, campaigns and turnout will minimize any losses that our party may incur (and we may even be in store for a big, happy surprise like in 1934).  There’s nothing like a good campaign – just look at Scott Brown’s recent victory in Massachusetts, or something just as impressive to me – the near-defeat of Barry Goldwater in Arizona — by a Democrat ! — in 1980 of all years ! (Goldwater won a razor-sharp victory only after all the absentees had been counted).

If, on the other hand, we’re just playing defense and adopt a fatalistic outlook towards November 2010, our losses are likely to be greater.  The President also needs to make the right choices over the next nine months – in order to create as favorable a climate for the Democratic Party to succeed in November (and that includes not alienating his base and thus depressing turnout !) … so, good luck to the Democrats … but don’t forget go on offense and fight like hell over the next nine months and don’t be afraid of history; nothing is inevitable in elections.

7 thoughts on “Historical Perspective on Mid-Term Elections”

  1. Great diary and a great read.  We will in fact win some seats in November even if things stay bad (LA-2, Del-AL, IL-10) and we have others with great chances.  But the point I liked the best is fighting the close ones.  Looks at those winners of close races in 1994 and think what a differene a few points would have made.  (Bob Barr!  Tom Coburn!)

    What the Dems need in 2010, and lacked in 1994, is turn-out.  They need to get Democrats fired up.

  2. Gonna do one on dem offense myself inspired by yours. By reckoning there are about 15 GOP districts that should be competitive in november.

  3. In the 1962 elections the size of the House itself shrank. It went from 437 seats going into the elections (the size of the House had been temporarily enlarged when Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the Union in 1959), to 435 seats afterward.

  4. Delaware is shaded on a surprisingly large number of those maps, considering it only has 1 cd. The impending party change in 2010 is nothing new to them.

  5. Excellent work on this diary, LOVE all the numbers you dug up and good mappage, too.

    One thought: Redistricting usually now hits in the ’04 years, which is a factor–we lost both of the Dem-held KS seats in 1994, for example, that had previously been leaning Dem and held by Dems, to a gerrymander. But it can cut both ways I think, sometimes unleashing a big change that been underway in a state for awhile.

    Since at least the 1980s, the GOP seems to do better at this. As gerrymandering wears off as districts change, the Dems slowly crawl back only to do it all over again in the ’04 year. 2004 and 1994 certainly did this, though it does seem that one party or another will surge ahead in the 04s, not always the GOP…

    But logic says that if the GOP did well in the 2000 gerrymander, then 2010 should be a good year for Dems…or at least, one where demographics are on our side, even if the media narrative is (currently) not.

  6. But at the same time they must not fall in euphoria like “All will be well by November”. Democrats have about 50-60 very competitive (in some cases – almost hopeless) seats they have to defend. So, IMHO, the strategy must be balanced: first of all – defend all that’s possible, but at the same time – counterattack everywhere possible. There is some hope that Republican party will “help” too: they already nominated candidate, who is far from perfect as general election candidate, in IL-10(though Democratic candidate there isn’t the best either), and, if gubernatorial results will hold, in IL-GOV. There can be many other such cases as primary season unravels

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