It is the quintessential question for incumbents in bad political years for their party (especially in presidential years). Do you stand with the man at the top of the ticket of your party, or run? There really is no easy answer. Contradictory evidence exists for either decision. Local, state and national issues can also intrude on an incumbent’s thinking as well. The goal here will be to provide some examples of bad political years for both parties (1980 and up) , using them to perhaps explain what Democrats should do this year. This is not to mean people are not mad with both parties, but in US politics one thing is true. The party that owns the White House is the one that hurts the most election years.
1982: Republicans fresh off the wave election of 1980 set out force dramatic change. Regulatory and tax reform. Increase the defense budget. And most of all instituting supply side economics. The downside of this was Republicans went along wholeheartedly with this strategy. In late 1981 when it started to become clear the economy was yet to do a 180 Republicans finally began to back off from Reagan’s policies. But they also split on whether to defend the president’s policies or not in public. Voting for them was one thing, campaigning on those votes was another. In the end this kind of split decision-making cost the GOP 26 House seats and multiple Senate seats in the 1982 midterms.
1994: Republicans had been delivered a stinging rebuke from the public in 1992. They had just lost the presidency and multiple House and Senate seats. Democrats were elated to be in the WH for the first time in over a decade. As a result, Democrats pursued policies that were liberal wet dreams of the time. Tax reform which included raising taxes on the wealthy (such reform), gun control legislation, Hillarycare and a massive omnibus budget that became known for corruption and pork. Democrats split in their support for those proposals along regional lines. Southern Democrats ardently opposed gun control and Hillarycare. Liberals loved them. As a result, once again a split in support for the president’s policies emerged. In 1994, GOP candidates blasted Democrats for supporting liberal initiatives across the nation. Southern Democrats tried to run away from the president. They had a case. Combined with Republicans they had stalled Hillarycare and gun-control legislation. But it was for not. The GOP won eight senate seats and 54 House seats in 1994. Among the ranks of lost Democratic seats were over 20 Southern districts. Despite running away from the president Southern Democrats had been hit hard. This trend would only accelerate in later years. Meanwhile in the North, many Democrats who had pushed liberal initiatives survived, even in swing/moderate districts.
2006: Republicans won firmer control of the Senate and the House (due to Texas’s mid decade redistricting) in 2004. They had also retained the White House. But eventually issues would drag down the GOP. Corruption scandals plagued the White House. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan steadily got worse. Spending grew out of control, angering many conservatives and independents who would have otherwise voted Republican. By early 2006 many prominent Republicans were running away from the president. Bush’s approval by the time of the midterms was below 40% and no matter what Republicans did to distance themselves they suffered. Democrats took seats all across the country from California to Massachusetts. Most affected were the number of GOP moderates sitting in swing districts. From NY state to California they suffered widespread losses. When the damage was tallied Democrats had won six Senate seats and 31 House seats. Congress was now in Democratic hands.
2008: Coming off 2006 Democrats where hopeful on 2008. Bush was still in office and unpopular and whoever the GOP nominated to replace him would be tied inevitably to his legacy. Congressional Republicans were not relishing facing a more liberal and Democratic favoring presidential electorate. Republicans and Democrats locked in partisan battle for over two years. What the president got done was through executive order. Democrats could not get through pet projects such as cap-and-trade and Healthcare reform. In 2008, Democrats nominated Barack Obama for president. The GOP went for John McCain. Despite the fight between Obama and Hillary for the nomination the party was united against the GOP. Congressional and Senate Republicans ran away from Bush but tied themselves to McCain. Perhaps they hoped a maverick, moderate Senator could save them. But when the market tanked in 2008 that changed. The public turned firmly to Democrats and their nominee. Obama cruised to victory and Democrats added nine new Senate seats to their numbers in the Senate and over 20 House seats. Neither running nor sticking with a candidate save many Republicans.
2010: Democrats with huge majorities in both chambers and a liberal president in the WH charged ahead with liberal initiatives. Healthcare Reform was shoved through almost to completion, as was cap-and-trade by late 2009 . The Stimulus project, and other government spending which did not dent unemployment grew exponentially. Perhaps Democrats should not have been so happy they won two special elections in NY. Both had mitigating circumstances where the state GOP lost the seats, the Democrats didn’t exactly win them. But Democrats did notice the results of NJ’s and VA’s gubernatorial elections (held in off years). In each case a Republican governor won. In VA the GOP won every state office by double digits. In NJ, a little known Republican Attorney beat a well-financed incumbent Democratic Governor. Then came a special election to replace the passed Senator Ted Kennedy in January. In deep blue MA the GOP candidate, state senator Scott Brown, won an emphatic 52%-47% over well-known and liked (but horrid campaigner) Attorney General Marth Coakley. But even than Democrats decided pushed ahead with a plan to make their base happy. They passed Healthcare Reform in a total display of corruption for votes and increased spending (as if trillion dollar debts was not enough). It was only by about June 2010 Democrats finally seemed to realize the president was hurting them. His approval ratings had dropped below 50% and GOP challengers frequently tied Democratic incumbents to him. Like in 1994, Democrats split in their approach. Some Democrats ran from the president, others embraced him. In the end the GOP cost themselves a couple Senate seats with bad candidates, ditto a few House seats, but won six Senate seats and 63 House seats. It was an impressive haul and completed at the federal level their domination of the South. Moreover, the GOP extended control in the South for the first time to many state offices.
Today: Currently the president’s job approval numbers are border sub 40 levels. Unemployment remains high, spending and the debt are major issues, entitlement spending is unsustainable. The general mood of the public is pessimistic about the future. And if recent special elections are any indication, voters blame the president’s party more than Republicans. In California a special election saw a Republican come within 9% of winning a heavily Democratic district. In NV-2 and NY-9 special elections just this Tuesday Republicans won both. The Republicans won by over 20% in GOP leaning NV-2 and the Republican won in a massively Democratic, Brooklyn/Queens NY district by a stunning eight points. Despite the fact Democrats won a special election in GOP leaning NY-26 a few months ago Democrats are taking notice. Due to 2010 few remaining Democrats in the House respresent swing districts. And redistricting has yet to be decided in many states. But for Democratic Senators in swing states or GOP leaning states such as MT, NE, FL, MO, MI, PA, and OH they have reason to be worried. Democratic candidates for open seats in NM and VA also. So do they run or stand with their president in 2012. If history is any example there is no clear answer. Republicans stood with Reagan and were hurt in 82. Democrats split on Clinton in 94 and were devastated. In 2006 and 2008 Republicans ran from Bush and were defeated badly. In 2010 most Democrats stuck with Obama, at least until the summer of 2010, and it did not matter. In essence the decision is up the individual candidates. Some districts and states are a better fit to run as a supporter of the president. Others like MT, NE, FL, etc are not. Local factors such as a candidate’s appeal, ability to move beyond a partisan label also play a part as do important state or federal issues that have a larger impact in that one district (or state) than nationwide. There is no easy answer to this question. Democrats and Republicans alike know this all to well. Democratic incumbents in 2012 are likely to be a mix of presidential supporters and those that seek to distance themselves from the administration. But it is likely, considering the electoral and partisan environment, that regardless a significant chunk of Democratic losses in 2012 will come from those that seeked to distance themselves from the White House. To many Democratic Senators are up in GOP leaning states for this not to happen. By contrast, only a a few GOP house districts will are likely to flip back to Democratic control, even if Obama wins reelection. But that is a prediction for another day.