Charles Black of the Republican National Committee says Tuesday's election was a big victory for George Bush and the Republicans, relatively and historically speaking. He's wrong.
He's wrong because he's comparing only half the relevant history.
Mr. Black said the average loss of House seats by the president's party in off-year elections has been 29 and the average loss in the Senate has been three. Since Republicans lost only nine seats in the House and one in the Senate in this
off-year election, a claim of victory -- or at least satisfaction -- sounds justified.
Consider how previous presidents have done in off-year elections:
Ronald Reagan's Republicans lost five seats in the House and eight in the Senate in 1986, 26 in the House and none in the Senate in 1982.
Jimmy Carter's Democrats lost 11 in the House, three in the Senate in 1978.
Richard Nixon's Republicans lost 43 in the House, three in the Senate in 1974, and 12 in the House in 1970 (but gained two in the Senate).
Lyndon Johnson's Democrats lost 47 in the House, three in the Senate in 1966.
John Kennedy's Democrats lost four in the House in 1962 (but gained four in the Senate).
Dwight Eisenhower's Republicans lost 47 in the House, three in the Senate in 1958, and 18 in the House and one in the Senate in 1954.
Harry Truman's Democrats lost 29 and six in 1950, 55 and 12 in 1946.
Franklin D. Roosevelt's Democrats lost 45 and nine in 1942, 71 and six in 1938 but gained nine and 10 in 1934.
I assume those are the elections Mr. Black used for his historical analogy, since by my arithmetic those 14 off-year elections had an average loss of 28.8 seats in the House and 2.7 seats in the Senate.
George Bush's 1990 looks pretty good.
The problem with comparing off-year elections standing alone is that they are really part of a two-step election process, involving two electorates. In presidential years, millions of voters come out just to vote for the president. They don't even know their members of Congress. If they do, they often disagree with their politics. But they vote the ticket, and in comes a weak candidate on the president's coattails.
(In the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Brooklyn Democratic leader named Hymie Schorenstein explained the process this way to some candidates on the bottom of the ticket: "When the big ferry from Staten Island comes into the ferry slip, it never comes in strictly alone. It drags in all the crap from the harbor behind it. FDR is our Staten Island Ferry.")
Two years after a presidential election, turnout goes back to normal and the cr- -- I mean the newcomers -- are ousted. At least many are. That's why off-year elections often are numerical blood baths for the president's party.
Here are a couple of recent examples:
In 1984 Ronald Reagan was re-elected president in a landslide. In a Colorado district that year, Republican Michael Strang was elected with 95,000 out of a total of 183,000 votes cast (about 52 percent). Two years later the voter turnout dropped by nearly 10 percent, and Mr. Strang lost.
In a New York district in 1984, Republican Fred J. Eckert won a seat in the House of Representatives with 117,000 votes to his Democratic opponent's 97,000.
Two years later, the drop-off in voters in the district was more than 20 percent, and Mr. Eckert lost.
Sometimes the better a president does in his on-year election, the worse his party does in the next off-year one. For example, the Democrats lost 47 seats in the House in 1966, after they had gained 38 thanks to Lyndon Johnson's huge landslide of 1964.
A president who does well in an off-year election may just have done so not because he is popular or his party strong, but because he didn't do what the Staten Island ferry does.
That's the case with George Bush. The reason his party did so well, relatively speaking, last Tuesday, is that he did so poorly on Election Day 1988.
On that day while George Bush was getting himself elected by a comfortable popular vote margin, his party was losing three seats in the House and one in the Senate. The Bush Ferry had no wake. George Bush had negative coattails.
His was the second-worse record in 70 years. In 1960 Democrats lost 20 seats in the House and two in the Senate while John F. Kennedy was winning the presidency in a popular vote dead heat. Negative coattails have only happened four other times in thehistory of Democrats vs. Republicans.
Looking at the two-election cycle as a set, a president's inability to strengthen his party in Congress is more obvious. In most of these cycles from 1932-1934, the president's party lost ground or broke even in Congress. There were four exceptions:
Ronald Reagan's party won seven House seats and 12 Senate seats net in 1980-1982.
Dwight Eisenhower's netted four seats in the House and broke )) even in the Senate in 1952-1954.
Harry Truman's gained a net of 46 House seats and three Senate seats in 1948-1950.
FDR's gained a remarkable 106 House seats and 22 Senate seats in 1932-1934.
The Bush/Republican record for 1988-1990 is 12 seats lost in the House and two in the Senate.
How does that compare with the historical record? Below average in the House, about average in the Senate. I compute the average House net two-election loss to a president's party from 1932-1934 through 1984-1986 at 6.3, the average for Senate losses at 2.4.
So if 1988-1990 was nothing for Mr. Bush to cry about, it certainly wasn't anything to brag about. And it may have been something to cry about. No president in the past 60 years who did that poorly in a two-election cycle that began with a first term won a second term.
Theo Lippman Jr. is a columnist and editorial writer for The Sun.