Historic Quote: “In 1966, skirts are higher, pants are tighter and LBJ’s coattails are shorter.” – A GOP slogan for the 1966 midterm elections as the GOP hoped to win back contests that had been lost in Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 rout.
For most of October, particularly since the release of the “Access Hollywood” tapes, Democrats have been gleeful that a huge Clinton win would be a boon to down-ticket races. Their hopes were not only that the Senate would fall their way but the House, against all realistic predictions and with a dearth of competitive races, would also be ripe for the taking. Most polling has not shown that to be the case. They’ve found that not to be the case. That’s not to say Democrats won’t gain control of the Senate and pick up as many as 20 House seats. But candidates won’t be glided in on Clinton coattails. Why? Because coattails are overrated and, for all the talk about them, are largely a thing of the past.
The two elections since FDR’s second term in 1936 in which coattails genuinely were present took place in 1964 and 1980. In 64, LBJ grabbed 61% against Barry Goldwater and the span of his victory was awesome. He brought in 47 additional Democratic House seats, giving the party 2/3 in the chamber. Lee Hamilton was one such freshman ushered in from nowhere and the Indiana Democrat would look back years later and say “any fool running as a Democrat could have won that year and some of us did.” One of Hamilton’s classmates, Tom Foley of Washington State, was so sure that the incumbent he was challenging could not be dislodged, that he filed to run just 45 minutes prior to the filing deadline). Ironically, what voters give voters taketh away as the party fell back 47 seats in the ’66 midterms. Democrats only gained a single Senate seat that year but already held 67. But the coattails allowed Democrats to hold a handful of seats Democrats had considered lost, including Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas, the latter which enabled Senator Ralph Yarborough to stave off a future President and highly prized GOP recruit, future President George H.W. Bush. Democrats also managed to hold Nevada Nevada, where incumbent Howard Cannon retained his seat by a mere 48 votes.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan took an 11% national victory over incumbent President Jimmy Carter, a result credited with ushering in a GOP Senate for the first time in 26 years. Though the House stayed in Democratic hands, a GOP increase of 35 House seats led to unexpected victories by a number of political novices, among them New Jersey’s Chris Smith and California’s Duncan Hunter. The new class was referred to as “Reagan Robots.” At least a handful of the Senate races Republicans won were late-breakers where the Democratic candidate had been favored almost until the polls closed.
But those two elections is about where the so called coattails ends – and that has proven the case even in the strongest of victories.
In 1972, Richard Nixon was demolishing George McGovern yet the Democrats netted two Senate seat. In 1984, Reagan was thrashing Mondale by nearly as punishing a margin yet again, the Democrats scored a two seat gain. Republicans did pick up roughly a dozen House seats in both
Bill Clinton did not win either of his two elections by smashing margins but the mood was such – and the GOP held Senate seats so-much at risk, so that Democrats were optimistic that he’d carry in sweeping number of Democrats. It didn’t. In the end, Democrats came away with the same 57 seats they held prior to- and suffered a few razor-tight losses along the way. Despite Clinton sweeps, Democrats failed to dislodge incumbent Republicans Alfonse D’Amato (by a mere 49-48% margin), Arlen Specter (49-46%) and Bob Packwood (52-47%). Senator “Kit” Bond of Missouri was also re-elected and Democrats narrowly failed to wrestle an open Republican seat in New Hampshire. Most heartbreaking may have been the loss of incumbent Senator Wyche Fowler by a 51-49% margin in a Georgia runoff (Fowler had been unable to secure 50% under Georgia law on Election Day). Only Wisconsin, where Senator Bob Kasten lost to an energetic Senator named Russ Feingold was due to a coattail effect (another GOP incumbent, John Seymour of California, lost that year, but he had been appointed to his seat and never stood a chance).
Going into 1996, Democrats had high hopes for recapturing at least one chamber of Congress that they had lost two years earlier. Republicans took the blame for the government shutdown. But by the end of the summer, it was obvious that Bill Clinton was going to be re-elected. So they ran ads asking voters if they wanted Democrats to control it all. It was later said that they did so with the acquiescence of Dole, who knew how to read polls and had accepted the reality that he was going to lose.
Given that the Republicans actually added two seats to their majority in the Senate, one can conclude they probably would have held control regardless of how well or poorly their nominee for President was doing., where their 55-45 edge was based mainly on picking-up or holding seats in favorable territory (Alabama, Kansas, Wyoming, the Carolinas, etc). The House was another matter. The end result was 227 Republicans to 207 Democrats (not including an Independent named Bernie Sanders who caucused with the party). The nine seat gain for Democrats mostly consisted of low-hanging fruit, as incumbents in hopelessly blue Massachusetts such as Peter Blute and Peter Torkildsen in Massachusetts lost, or weak incumbents such as Ohio’s Martin Hoke and North Carolina’s Fred Heinneman. Only a few Republican incumbents in genuinely tossup races were actually sent packing.
In fact, incumbents J.D. Hayworth of Arizona, Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, Phil English and Jon Fox of Pennsylvania, Jack Metcalf and Linda Smith of Washington and Mark Neumann of Wisconsin actually staved off defeat by margins of 51-49% or less (Fox held a ten vote lead on Election Night, which ballooned to 84, while Metcalf and Smith had actually been declared the losers before the mail-in ballots were tabulated). Additionally, Democratic Congressman Mike Ward of Kentucky lost by 1,700 votes and the party lost an open seat in Illinois by a similar margin.
2004 featured a different kind of tailwind for GOP candidates as Senate Republicans widened their perilous one-seat Senate majority by picking up four seats. But because George W. Bush only re-election by 2.2 percentage points, victorious candidates might well owe their margins to regional coattails. Indeed, the utter collapse of the Democratic Party in “red” states was enough to get seven of eight Republican candidates in competitive races over the top, which included the defeat of the Senate Minority Leader (only Colorado, which was actually trending “purple” chose a Democratic Senator). But those states were leaning to the party regardless. And the House, where a three seat GOP gain was chalked up mostly to a mid-decade Texas redistricting, saw a more placid three seat gain.
Lets now turn to this year. Unlike 2004, when the competitive contests were mostly confined to favorable turf, the Senate geography now is all over the place. There are “blue” states with competitive contests (Pennsylvania and Nevada), several purple states (New Hampshire, North Carolina and Wisconsin) and even states that typically lean red (Missouri and New Hampshire). Another important factor is that the 24 hour news media has made voters more informed about down-ballot races and the non-stop commercials gives voters exposure to the candidates in them warts and all. In other words, most voters are fully aware of what they are doing when they pull the lever down ballot.
This year, Republicans have been reprising their ’96 strategy. They initially began running ads in New Hampshire asking voters to re-elect Kelly Ayotte as a “check and balance” on Hillary Clinton. Others have followed and in stumping for GOP House candidates nationwide, House Speaker Paul Ryan said he wants to make sure Clinton does not get a “a blank check.” The House picture is even more muddied when it comes to coattails. Democrats have succeeded in putting many more seats on the map than had previously thought possible this year but, as Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics has noted, the fact that Republican incumbents are putting up fights in districts Democrats had expected to lock up by now (Florida-13, Iowa-1, Nevada-4, and New Hampshire-1) says that even if they win all four at the end of the day, it would not be a result of a wave.
At the end of the day, Democrats in most of these Senate contests may win their races. But the fact that virtually all of the candidates have been locked in virtual dead-heats with their rivals is indication that even a big Clinton win in their states will be more due to the lean of their states rather than a massive stampede of support to their party.