Last week, Michael Barone compared the GOP win in Massachusetts to the 1974 special election to fill Gerald Ford’s House seat in Michigan, which was at least an interesting comparison, but now he has concluded that this is another 1974. In January 1974, Nixon’s approval rating had fallen to 23%. By the time of the midterms, Ford’s approval was still 47% even after the pardon, but the damage to the party had been done. Lawbreaking, scandal, cover-up and disgrace dragged the GOP down. That is what the bottom falling out looks like. It should be pretty easy to remember what it looks like, because this is also what happened to Republicans in Congress for the last two elections.
This analysis of the relationship between presidential approval and midterm House losses is useful, but it can also be misleading. It includes the ’74 loss among those elections when presidential approval is under 50% when determining the average number of House seats lost. Technically, this is correct, because Ford was President by then, but the reason for the ’74 blowout was obviously the unpopularity of Nixon and the association of the party with Nixon. 1974 was also the sixth-year midterm election in the second term of a deeply unpopular President, which would seem to make it nothing like this upcoming midterms.
Even the GOP under a very unpopular Bush during the worst stage of a very unpopular war did not lose more than 30 seats in one cycle. Thanks to more precise methods of drawing up gerrymandered districts, incumbents have become harder to defeat over the last few decades. This is why the GOP didn’t lose more than 30 seats in either of the last two elections despite continuing to embrace one of the three most unpopular Presidents of the last century. 2006 wasn’t another 1974, either, and there were many more reasons to think that it would have been that bad for Republicans. So Barone’s comparison with 1974 seems wrong in several ways.
According to the RCP average, Obama’s rating is currently 48.7/46.8, which is higher than Reagan’s was at a comparable point. So how can Barone conclude that Obama’s party is about to experience a 1974-style repudiation? Judging from his earlier article, he has concluded that the Massachusetts election has great meaning:
The Republican victory in the current Democratic heartland of Massachusetts sends the message that Americans are repelled by Barack Obama’s big-government programs, backroom deals and oversolicitude for those who want to destroy us.
This is simply speculation. Not only does Barone present no evidence that this is why Massachusetts voters backed Brown, but there is good reason to think that the average Obama/Brown voter is not repelled by what Obama is doing. Of course, McCain/Brown voters are repelled, which is why they didn’t vote for Obama in the first place. Indeed, Obama voters who supported Brown may have cast their ballots without intending to send any message to Obama. According to that Post poll, he was not a factor in the decisions of half of Brown’s voters. To the extent that Obama/Brown voters were repelled, it seems to have been “dealmaking” and a lack of transparency that offended many of them. While the comparison with Ford’s House seat thirty-six years ago catches our attention, the reasons for the two losses are very different.
The GOP was voted out of power a little over three years ago, and it was battered again during a presidential election in which the opposing candidate won more than 50% of the vote. Is there any precedent for a party that has gone through two terrible elections, lost its majorities in both houses in one of them and then rallies to win back control of one or both houses in the third? There is one that I can find, and that was 1954, but the GOP majority going into those midterms was eight seats, not seventy-eight as the Democratic majority is today. Eisenhower managed to bring the GOP into the majority very briefly and by a narrow margin, so it only took a modest, normal midterm correction for the Democrats to win back the majority. For the same thing to happen this year, we would have to see an unprecedented swing in public sentiment towards the GOP after the public had barely finished punishing them.
Has a presidential party lost its majority two years after their President won with more than 50% of the vote? Again, the only example I can find is Eisenhower, who won a landslide victory that was just enough to create a slim Republican majority that vanished two years later. I cannot find any precedent for the immediate repudiation of a presidential party with such large majorities in the first term of a President who won the majority of the popular vote. It simply doesn’t happen. If the majorities were considerably smaller, Democratic loss of control might be conceivable, but they have too much of a cushion that they have built up over the last two cycles.
Update: Checking more closely, I see that there is another example of a President winning over 50% of the vote and then losing the House in the next election. The last time that happened was in 1910 when the Democrats took control of the House after Taft’s 1908 victory over Bryan. An important difference between now and then is that the Democrats were coming off of a number of electoral defeats dating back to 1900, and Republicans had held an uninterrupted majority in the House since 1894.