In power in the White House usually loses seats...

THE PARTY

September 12, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

THE PARTY in power in the White House usually loses seats in Congress in off-year elections.

In 1990, 1986 and 1982, Presidents Reagan and Bush saw the Republicans lose. Jimmy Carter's Democrats lost in 1978. President Nixonford's Republicans lost in 1974. They also lost seats in 1970. Lyndon Johnson's Democrats lost seats in 1966, Eisenhower's Republicans in 1958 and 1954 and Truman's Democrats in 1950 and 1946.

In the post-war period only John F. Kennedy was spared an off-year defeat. He got an off-year tie. His Democrats lost four seats in the House but gained four in the Senate.

The reason presidents' parties suffer these defeats is not usually a repudiation of them personally. After all, Reagan, Nixon, Ike and Truman were re-elected two years after their parties lost seats in 1982, 1970, 1954 and 1946.

The problem is that presidential coattails aren't available in off years. Many voters who know relatively little about congressional candidates turn out to vote for their presidential choice, and, often, then vote for that presidential candidate's party's choice for senator and, especially, representative. Those voters don't turn out in off years.

For example, the total vote cast in Maryland's Senate race in 1986 (off year) was 1.11 million; in 1992 (on year) it was 1.84 million. There's a similar discrepancy in House races.

In very recent times the off-year phenomenon has been less pronounced than it used to be, in part because more voters now split their tickets in presidential years. Also, incumbents are more secure in off years than they used to be, because they have more campaign support in terms of privately raised money and taxpayer-provided perks.

In the four off-year elections since the Campaign Finance Reform and Incumbent Protection Act went into effect, the average loss for a president's party has been 13 seats in the House and three seats in the Senate.

Some of my fellow pundits believe there is a good chance that the Republicans will take over the Senate this year, and some even predict a Republican-controlled House of Representatives. The former would require a net gain of seven seats, and the latter would require a net gain of 42 seats.

Is that a lot? Let's go to the videotape. Republicans haven't gained seven Senate seats but once in the past 40 years -- 12 seats in 1980 on Ronald Reagan's amazing coattails. Their best off-year Senate showing in the past 40 years was a gain of three, in 1978 and 1966.

They haven't gained 42 House seats but once in the past 40 years -- 47 in 1966. That was a correction of Lyndon Johnson's 1964 coattails, which had given Democrats a pickup of 38 seats. Nothing like that to correct in 1994. Bill Clinton had no coattails. Democrats lost 10 seats in 1992.

Never mind the history lesson, Theo, you are thinking, what's your 1994 prediction?

Thursday: Theo's early line.

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