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The Democrats' woes are overstated

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In his article "Democrats are in denial. Their party is actually in deep trouble," Matt Yglesias points to the real problems the Democrats face in elections below the presidency. At the same time, many of these problems are similar to those faced by all parties that have controlled the White House for two terms. Political scientists often refer to the "thermostatic" nature of American public opinion, where support for activist government declines during Democratic administrations and increases during Republican ones.

A similar dynamic occurs with elections, as every party that controls the White House for two terms loses ground in down-ballot races. The table below shows the number of senators, House members, and governors at the beginning and the end of the most recent two-term presidencies. The only president who was able to beat this pattern of losing Senate, House, and gubernatorial seats was Ronald Reagan, who, while losing Senate and House seats, did manage to pick up one governor. In fact, Yglesias seems to understand this, since he writes, "So-called ‘wave' elections in which tons of incumbent lose are typically driven by a backlash against the incumbent president. Since the incumbent is a Democrat, Democrats have no way to set up a wave."

Nixon/ Ford

Ronald Reagan

Bill Clinton

George W. Bush

Incoming Senate Seats

43

53

57

50

Outgoing Senate Seats

38

45

45

49

Change

-5

-8

-12

-1

Incoming House Seats

192

192

258

221

Outgoing House Seats

144

177

211

202

Change

-48

-15

-47

-19

Incoming Governors

31

23

30

29

Outgoing Governors

13

24

17

22

Change

-18

1

-13

-7

Yglesias also overstates the self-perpetuating nature of Republican advantages in non-presidential elections. According to him, "GOP control of most state legislatures lets Republicans draw boundaries in a way that is even more GOP-friendly than the natural population distribution would suggest." But most political scientists agree that gerrymandering has very little impact on House elections, adding perhaps seven to 10 seats to the GOP total in 2012.  That's enough to tip control to the Republicans in a close election, but it certainly doesn't explain the GOP's 33-seat majority in 2012 after the last round of redistricting. Moreover, redistricting does nothing to explain why the GOP was able to pick up an additional 13 seats in 2014 without any additional redistricting.

Overall, there's nothing wrong with the Democrats that losing the presidency probably won't fix, and by the same token, the best way for the Republicans to risk their majorities in the Senate, House, and governorships is to win the White House in 2016.

Philip A. Klinkner is the James S. Sherman professor and chair of the government department at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York.

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