Bill Clinton Is the Mid-Term Election Loser of the Century

November 20, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

How bad was the Democratic defeat in the House of Representatives, judged against the historical record of off-year elections?

It was the worst whipping a president's party has taken in exactly 100 years, when Grover Cleveland was in the White House.

I figure this a little differently than most analysts do. I figure that to get the true meaning of the numbers in an off-year election, you have to consolidate them with the numbers from the election preceding it.

Normally in a presidential election year, the winning presidential candidate's party picks up seats in the House.

This is because a significantly larger number of voters go to the polls to vote for presidential candidates; many of them vote for that presidential candidate's party's House candidates, and so the winning presidential candidate's party picks up extra votes and seats in the House. It's called coattails.

Then, two years later, voting participation drops off. Those fresh men members of the House who won narrowly thanks to a president's coattails get bumped off by the traditional off-year electorate.

That's usually true, but not always true. For example, Republicans gained 33 House seats when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, but the party lost three seats when George Bush won the White House in 1988.

So when Republicans lost 26 seats in 1982, they were still seven seats ahead of where they were before Ronald Reagan with coattails flying came along.

When Republicans lost eight seats in 1990, their record under George Bush was a net loss of 11.

On Nov. 8, Bill Clinton's Democrats lost at least 52 seats (still counting in places).

That is not as many as President Harry S. Truman's Democrats lost in 1946 (55). It is not as many as Franklin D. Roosevelt's Democrats lost in 1938 (71).

It is not as many as Warren Harding's Republicans lost in 1922 (75). It is not as many as Woodrow Wilson's Democrats lost in 1916 (59).

Not as many as William Howard Taft's Republicans lost in 1910 (57). Not as many as Grover Cleveland's Democrats lost in 1894 (116). Not as many as Benjamin Harrison's Republicans lost in 1890 (85). Not as many as Ulysses S. Grant's Republicans lost in 1874 (96).

But Mr. Clinton's Democrats lost 10 seats in 1992, when he was elected president with his coattails down, so that his party's net loss with him on the ballot or in the White House has been 62.

Counting the president's party's House gains in the elections immediately preceding the ones cited in the paragraph above, every cycle but Cleveland's in 1892-1894 and Harrison's in 1888-1890 was less of a net loss for the presidential party than the one we have just completed.

Bill Clinton is the loser of the century.

For the record, Grant's party gained 64 seats in 1872, Harrison's gained 22 in 1888, Cleveland's lost 11 in 1892 (for the previous record two-year total of 127), Taft's lost three in 1908, Wilson's won 59 in 1912, Harding's gained 63 in 1920, Roosevelt's gained 11 in 1936, and Truman's party gained 21 seats in 1944.

So except for Harrison's Republicans (net loss 63) and Cleveland's Democrats (127), the other big off-year losers did better net than did Mr. Clinton.

After a party loses House seats in the 60-ish and up range in a two-year cycle, what happens next?

There have been only five other election cycles as bad as the one Mr. Clinton's Democrats just experienced.

Here's what happened:

* After his Republican Party lost 63 seats net in 1888-1890, Harrison lost a re-election bid to Cleveland.

* After Cleveland's Democrats lost 127 seats in 1892-1894, his party lost the presidency to Republican William McKinley in 1896.

* After his Republican Party lost 60 seats in 1908-1910, Taft lost the presidency to Democrat Wilson.

* McKinley's Republicans lost 40 House seats when he was elected in 1896 and 21 more in 1898. He was re-elected in 1900, and Republican presidential candidates won again in 1904 and 1908.

* After his Democratic Party lost 60 seats in 1936-1938, Franklin Roosevelt was re-elected again in 1940 and 1944, and his party's candidate also won in 1948.

Important difference

There is an important difference between the first three cases and the last two.

Democrats took over control of the House from Harrison's Republicans in 1890, Republicans took over control of the House from Cleveland's Democrats in 1894, and Democrats took over control of the House from Taft's Republicans in 1910.

But Republicans had such a huge advantage in the House in 1896 that their big net loss for 1896-1898 did not cost them the speakership and control of committees, and Democrats had similar strength in 1936 so that net losses in 1936-1938 did not result in Republicans gaining control of the House.

Obviously if a party controls the House and the White House, the occupant of the latter is in better shape politically when the next presidential campaign comes around.

Mr. Clinton, with a very combative Republican House of Representatives (not to mention Senate) to put up with in the last two years of his term, looks to me much more like a Benjamin Harrison, a Grover Cleveland or a William Howard Taft than a William McKinley or a Franklin Roosevelt.

"The Comeback Kid" is going to have to stage an p unprecedented comeback to get re-elected in 1996.

I= Theo Lippman Jr. writes editorials for the Baltimore Sun.

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