So, how long were Barack Obama’s coattails in the House this past election? In an earlier post (see here) I challenged you to estimate the percentage of House districts in which Obama ran ahead of the winning candidate, Democrat or Republican. I suggested that the measure is a crude indication of Obama’s political capital in the House. Members of Congress who have a broader electoral coalition than Obama are less likely to respond to his efforts at persuasion. It is also a useful check on the post-election media narrative that described Obama’s victory as political mandate.
None of you were fooled by my “hint” that the total might be 50%, or higher. In fact all of you who were brave enough to put your prognosticating powers on public display went – correctly – for a total on the lower end. Careful readers likely noted my statement that in the Senate Obama’s coattails were quite minuscule; he finished ahead of the winning Senate candidate in only 15% (5 of 33) races in 2008. That gave you a signal that the House percentage was likely to be on the low side.
And it was. Your answers ranged from 1% to 20%, with an average of 7.6%, and a median of 5%. In fact, you erred on the side of pessimism; according to the calculations of Avery White, who drew on the Swing State project data, of the 435 winning House candidates, Obama ran ahead of 10 Republicans and 37 Democrats, for a total of 47 districts in which he outpolled the winning House member. Rounding off, that’s a coattail of 11%, just a bit worse than he did in the Senate. If we include the 4 races in which he ran even with the winning House member, it pushes him to 12%.
For comparison purposes, John McCain did even worse, running ahead of only 40 (9%) of House members.
To put it another way, of the 257 House Democrats, fully 86% garnered as many or more votes than did Obama in their district in the 2008 election. Among Republicans House members, 94% outpolled Obama.
Mandate? Not from the perspective of Congress! My point, I hope, is clear: members of Congress in both the Senate and especially the House are acutely sensitive to constituent sentiment, and they are adept at reading election results. Note that Obama’s performance is only slightly worse than George Bush’s in 2004; Bush ran in front of 51 (12%) of House members. And John Kerry ran ahead of only 41 House members, a performance that mirrors McCain’s.
So Obama’s coattails, when it came to bargaining with Congress, are almost as long as Bush’s. This shouldn’t surprise us, given all I have said about the continuities between the two presidencies. They truly are mirror images, facing a similar set of political contexts, with all that entails for each president’s power (or lack thereof) to bend Congress to his will.
Now we shouldn’t overreact to these numbers – I don’t mean to suggest that Obama lacks support in 89% of House districts. In fact, in many of those districts he received more than 50% of the vote cast. But he can’t be expected, based on his district-level popularity, to cow House members into supporting his legislative preferences any more than Bush could.
My broader point is to remind you that ours is a separated system, in which members of Congress respond to different electoral incentives than does the President. This is relatively unique among modern democracies, and sets the U.S. “congressional” system apart from parliamentary systems in which the prime minister and her cabinet are drawn directly from the legislative body, and respond to the same electoral incentives. And it means that efforts by Obama to “go public” by trying to leverage his popularity within a particular district to pressure its Representative are, more often than not, likely to fail.
Oh, I almost forgot: the winner is Mike Norris who just about nailed it with his prediction of 12%. Mike – send me your t-shirt size and you’ll be a proud owner of an “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid” t-shirt. I expect you to send me a photo wearing it that I can post on the blog.
By the way, Bob and Vijay have an interesting back-and-forth going here on a related issue that is worth reading.