November 15, 2004


GOP's Future Sits Precariously on Small Cushion of Victory (Ronald Brownstein, November 15, 2004, LA Times)

Throughout American history, the reelection of a president has usually been a high-water mark for the president's party. In almost every case, the party that won reelection has lost ground in the next presidential election, both in the popular vote and in the electoral college.

The decline has been especially severe in the past half century. Since 1952 there have been six presidential elections immediately following a president's reelection. In those six races, the candidate from the incumbent's party has fallen short of the reelection numbers by an average of 207 electoral college votes and 8.4 percentage points in the popular vote.

Because his margin was so tight, Bush didn't leave the GOP with enough of a cushion to survive even a fraction of that erosion in four years. Even if the GOP in 2008 matches the smallest electoral college fall-off in the past half century — the 99-vote decline between Reagan in 1984 and George H.W. Bush in 1988 — that would still leave the party well short of a majority.

So Bush needs a second term successful enough to break these historical patterns. That's where his gains at expanding the Republican margins in Congress could become critical. In 2002, Bush became the first president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 to win House and Senate seats during his first midterm election. This year, he became the first president since Johnson in 1964 to add House and Senate seats while winning another term.

Make no mistake: Bush has been a driving force in the GOP congressional growth. Every Democratic House and Senate seat that Republicans captured this year came in states Bush carried twice.

In Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana and Georgia, where the GOP won Democratic Senate seats, at least 84% of Bush voters also supported the Republican Senate candidate, according to exit polls. More than three-fourths of Bush voters backed the winning Republican Senate candidates in South Dakota and Oklahoma.

The scale of Bush's victory, compared with that of most other reelected presidents, doesn't provide the basis for claiming an extravagant mandate. But a mandate is always an abstraction. The GOP gains in Congress give Bush something more tangible: a solid majority in both chambers. And a majority crowded with politicians who partly owe their seats to his popularity in their state.

There are so many qualifiers to this story you'll have no idea whether George W. Bush's electoral achievements are objectively impressive or not. Suffice it to say, in the third presidential election of the New Deal era FDR won by ten points and though his congressional majorities were already falling (from a 76-16 Senate majority), he did still maintain a 66-28 edge in the Senate and didn't lose effective control of Congress until 1942, because of the unpopularity of his getting us into the war in Europe.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 15, 2004 9:23 AM

Brownstein - another liberal writer/pundit trying to spin the election as bad news for Bush but then the facts get in the way.

Posted by: AWW at November 15, 2004 11:26 AM

The big question, and one I haven't answered to my own satisfaction yet (although the following list is in my order of probability), is whether this is a long-term retrenchment to the right; related solely to President Bush and his performance in office; a result of 9/11.

Posted by: David Cohen at November 15, 2004 11:30 AM


The New Deal Era was a longterm retrenchment to the Left related solely to the Depression and FDR's personal performance during, no?

It would be preferable if this is ideological drift, but we'll take it if it's 9-11ism.

Posted by: oj at November 15, 2004 11:54 AM

George W. Bush's electoral achievements are objectively impressive.

It's not bad news for Bush, it's bad news for whomever is the GOP nominee in '08.


As regards the Republican gains in Congress during Bush's term, at least half of those are a combination of the last two factors, and will be gone by '10, at the latest.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at November 15, 2004 11:59 AM

Which Red states will be electing Democrat Senators?

Posted by: oj at November 15, 2004 12:13 PM

This kind of thinking is no different thatn using the winner of a football game as a predictor for elections. At what point are these people going to realize that just because presidencies of the past half-century have followed a certain pattern, that this one is destined to do the same? (An An era in which the Cold War and Democrat dominance of Congress played a great role.) Even after the elections of '98, '002 and '004, we are seeing people who haven't figured this out.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at November 15, 2004 12:21 PM


In no particular order:
Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, Arizona, New Mexico, Indiana, the Dakotas, Florida, West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio, Tennessee, Louisiana, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri...

Any of the above might elect Democrats to the House or Senate while voting for a Republican President, and of course mid-term elections could be brutal for any Republican winning the '08 Presidential election.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at November 15, 2004 1:21 PM

The Dems got creamed in '42 because it was not clear that we were actually fighting the war yet. If in Nov 2002 we hadn't yet attacked Afghanistan, the Dems would surely have done quite well by saying they would.

Posted by: brian at November 15, 2004 1:54 PM


FDR and the Democrats specifically structured the campaign in '42 around the charge that Republicans were opposed to the war.

Posted by: oj at November 15, 2004 3:34 PM


That a state has or has had a Democratic Senator within the last twenty years is not suggestive that they'll elect a new one anytime soon.

Posted by: oj at November 15, 2004 3:48 PM

Bush is charming, and Americans are feeling militarily aggressive right now.

That suggests that in the near future, less charming GOP Presidents, in times of lower conflict, will not be able to hold the GOP Congressional gains.
While I agree that the Republicans should be able to hold both the Senate and the House through at least '08, their numbers will shrink. This is the high-water mark.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at November 16, 2004 12:53 AM


He was widely thought an idiot and even his supporters think he speaks like one.

Most people think the war was a mistake and a bare majority support it.

The re-election wasn't even his highwater mark.

Posted by: oj at November 16, 2004 6:51 AM