Some Historical Perspective on Coattails

I noted in my last post that Obama’s “coattails”, as measured by whether he ran ahead of members of Congress in their districts in 2008, were relatively small, casting doubt on media reports immediately after his November victory that he had won an electoral mandate – at least as viewed from the vantage point of Capitol Hill. This raises two questions: how does the length, or lack thereof, of Obama’s coattails compare with those of previous presidents? And what explains their relatively short length?  At this point, I have only calculated (actually, Avery White has calculated) comparative data from 2004 which indicates that Obama’s coattails were not much shorter than Bush’s.  However, according to Rhodes Cook, writing at Larry Sabato’s website (see here), Obama’s coattails are much shorter than those of the previous presidents during the last half-century who might claim, by virtue of the size of their popular and electoral college victory, that they won an electoral mandate. (Note that Cook only provides data on the presidents’ own party members – not how far ahead they ran among the opposition party in the House.) According to Cook, Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, and Richard Nixon in 1972, all ran ahead of more than 100 victorious House candidates of their own party. In comparison, Cook has Obama running ahead of 36 fellow Democrats. (I have Obama running ahead of 37 Democrats, and tied with another 4). However, Cook shows Ronald Reagan – who won a huge popular victory in 1984 – only running ahead of 59 fellow House Republicans, which is not in line with the other three big popular winners since 1956.  In 1980, which some view as a realigning election despite the much closer popular margin, Reagan ran ahead of only 38 victorious House Republicans.

The following table by Cook summarizes his data on coattails for presidents since 1956.  (Note: I have not verified this data – I only mention this because there are some discrepancies between his narrative and the data in the table.)

I am still looking at data sources to see how these presidents did in terms of all House candidates, and not just their own party.  But it helps reinforce a point I made soon after Obama’s election: that rather than an electoral mandate, Obama’s election is about average, historically speaking, for the post-World War II presidents.  When it comes to coattails, he is most similar to Reagan in 1980 and Bush II in 2004, although only Bush II had partisan majorities in both chambers.  There are no real surprises here, but it is a reminder that historically winning House candidates are adept at framing elections in ways that insulate themselves from national trends.  Rarely do presidents win more votes in their own party’s congressional districts than does the winning House member.  The more immediate lesson should be obvious by now: when it comes to bargaining with Democrats and Republicans in Congress, the 2008 elections did not place Obama  in a position of commanding strength, despite holding partisan majorities in both chambers.

One comment

  1. I have made this point before, but I think that it is worth noting that the top five elections in this chart were all elections in which a sitting president was running for reelection. In fact, all of the presidents who won two elections had stronger “coattails” during the second election.

    Whether these statistics are an accurate measure of a president’s ability to help congressional candidates within his (someday her) party is, in my view, somewhat debatable. Running ahead of congressional candidates may be the sign of the president’s electoral strength, but it also might indicate weaker performances by the congressmen and women in those districts. Consider this hypothetical: in two successive elections, a presidential candidate wins 55% of the vote in a particular district. In the same district, a congressman wins 57% of the vote in the first election and 52% in the second. According to the statistic measured above, the presidential candidates “coattails” would have increased by one from the first election to the second, even though support actually declined for the congressional candidate. Particularly since split-ballots are becoming more and more prevalent, I suspect that the hypothetical situation I’ve described is a reality in many districts across the country.

    If that is in fact the case, it may speak to the fact that most presidents actually benefit from a certain degree of sustained support throughout their years in office. Indeed, administrations elected during a change of party rule have generally been reelected to a second term (Carter is the only exception in the post FDR era, and there are many ways in which his Presidency was exceptional). It would be interesting to look at the historical trends for congressional elections in the second, fourth, and sixth years of presidential administrations to see if congressional candidates of the same party garner greater or lesser shares of the vote and how these levels of support compare to those of the president.

    If it is true that presidents running for reelection help improve the performances of congressional candidates, then it may suggest that peak of presidential influence might occur in the third and fourth years of the administration because this is when down-ticket candidates would benefit most from allying with the president. After the second election, though, a reelected president may have less to offer potential supporters in congress, and his power prospects may wain accordingly.

    In any case, I’m very interested in this and other ways of trying to measure the influence of the president on members of congress. Perhaps fundraising – either for the candidate or for the congressional campaign funds – is also a good indicator of a president’s ability to inspire electoral victories.

    Thanks for the post!

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