Bill Whalen

Splitting with Obama, Splitting Tickets?

Today marks exactly 57 weeks until the presidential election – or, another 400 days and about as many scenarios as to what direction Americans will choose.

One such hypothetical: voters will take the unprecedented step (it hasn’t happened in modern U.S. political history) of dumping the White House incumbent while giving the president’s party control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Huh? That seemingly flies in the face of conventional political wisdom as:

(a) We’re accustomed to the concept of presidential coattails and verdicts rendered not just against the commander-in-chief, but his friends at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue;

(b) With a 242-192 GOP edge in the House (pending the outcome of a Jan. 31 special election in Oregon, the most Republican seats in shortly after the Second World War), Democrats would have to pick up at least 25 seats to make Nancy Pelosi a "Re-Speaker" in 2013.

How tall of an order is a shift of 25 races, aside from the fact that a gain on that order has occurred only six times in the last 20 elections (albeit, in two of the last three cycles)?

Figure it this way: the 2006 mid-term resulted in a net gain of 31 House seats for the Democrats; 2008 brought another 21 seats. So, on the political tsunami scale, anti-Republican fervor in 2012 would have to crest midway between 2008’s Obamamania and 2006’s anti-war/anti-Bush frustration. Doesn’t sound likely, does it?

So why bother at all with this theory?

Two reasons:

  1. Presidential elections aren’t always reliably formulaic, especially when they come in the first year after congressional redistricting. Bill Clinton’s win in 1992 is a good example: he took the presidency in three-way race (43% of the vote); his party lost 9 seats in the House as Republicans made inroads across the nation’s Sunbelt.
  2. If Obama is ousted, is it a personal vote against the man and his presidency, or part of a louder statement about the current conditions in Washington? In that case, yes, Republicans should be concerned. After all, they’d have more House incumbents on the ballot – and, in theory, at risk – than the minority Democrats (Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour discusses this ticket-splitting phenomenon in a Ricochet.com podcast with Hoover fellow Peter Robinson).

Not to get too far ahead in all of this speculation, but 2012 could shape up as a decidedly strange election year.

How strange, you ask?

Just as a losing president’s party has never seized control of the House, we likewise haven’t experienced a national election in which both chambers of Congress reversed their respective majority-minority statuses.

At this point, at least one-half of that could play out, with Republicans standing a good chance of retaking the Senate (at present, a 51D-47R-2I divide, with the Democrats having twice as many seats to defend as the Republicans next fall).

If Obama continues to decline, we may also be looking at political volatility the likes of which the nation has rarely experienced in the past 80 years.

In the presidential election of 1928, Republican Herbert Hoover won 40 of 48 states, 444 electoral votes, and 58.2% of the popular vote (21.4 million ballots). Four years later, nearly the exact opposite: Democrat Franklin Roosevelt won 42 of 48 states, 472 electoral votes, and 57.4% of the popular vote (22.8 million ballots).

What led to that upheaval? Yes, the Great Depression. But, as far as the impact on congressional races: the economy, plus the fact that there was no congressional redistricting following the 1920 national census. Thus both a national tsunami and a congressional market-correction of sorts (America becoming more urban and less rural during the “Roaring ‘20’s”), with Republicanslosing 101 House seats, taking the GOP from a 218-majority to a kittenish minority of just 117 seats.

What would a Depression-like Obama collapse resemble in this day and age?

In 2008, he carried 28 states, amassed 365 electoral votes (since adjusted to a post-Census 359) and 52.9% of the popular vote (the latter, the highest since George H.W. Bush in 1988).

However, only 15 states and 196 of those electoral votes are considered to be part of a reliable Obama base. So a complete Obama meltdown would be something on the order of 35 states going Republican, with 342 electoral votes in the GOP column.

Btw, in case you’re curious as to how the House was affected by the other two presidential incumbent losses of the past century:

  • 1980: Carter loses; Democrats lose 34 seats;
  • 1912: Taft loses; Republicans lose 28 seats.
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