print logo

How to Understand Obama’s Chances in 2012

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The popular vote for the House and the president have converged. Here’s what it means for Obama’s chances in 2012.

Since the middle 1990s, the popular vote for the House of Representatives has become a good proxy for the standing of the nation’s two major parties. This was not the case for many years, in large part because Democratic House candidates in the South stood for different issues than their party’s national nominees and tended to run far ahead of Democratic presidential candidates. But during Bill Clinton’s presidency and afterward, Democratic presidential candidates became more successful nationally than they had been in most of the 1970s and 1980s, even as Republicans started running much better than they had in House districts in the South.

In 1992, for the first time since Reconstruction, the Republican percentage of the House vote in the South, defined as the 11 Confederate states plus West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma, was (slightly) higher than in the North; in 1994, Republicans carried the House popular vote in the South, as they have ever since, in years when they carried the House popular vote in the North only twice (in 1994 and 2002).

So it is fair to say that the popular vote for the House and the president have converged. This is apparent in the following table, showing the Democratic percentage for president and for House members in presidential election years going back to the first election after World War II.

Table 1

Barone-Table 1

The contrast is striking: from 1996 through 2008 there is only a 1% difference between the Democratic percentages for president and the House; between 1952 and 1992, with the single exception of 1964, when Lyndon Johnson ran ahead of Democratic congressional candidates, Democratic House candidates’ percentage ranged from 5% to 14% higher than Democrats’ percentages for president.

The question then suggests itself: to what extent can we consider the popular vote for the House in off-year elections as a prediction of the presidential vote in the next election? The answer appears to be: pretty good. Here are the Republican and Democratic percentages for the House popular vote and for the presidential popular vote, starting with 1994.

Table 2

Barone-Table 2

In the three most recent cases, the off-year percentages for the House are almost exactly the same as the presidential year percentages for president. However, Republicans signally failed to replicate their 1994 House percentage in the 1996 presidential contest. They would have been closer if 6% of the 8% cast for independent candidate Ross Perot is counted for Republican nominee Bob Dole—who polls suggested was the second choice of the overwhelming percentage of Perot voters—but that would still have left Clinton ahead 51%-47%.

Absent a considerable redefinition by the incumbent president, he or his party’s nominee is likely to run just about as well (or poorly) in the next presidential election as his party’s House candidates did in the most recent off-year elections.

Obviously, the three most recent examples portend an unhappy 2012 for President Obama and the Democrats, while the 1994-1996 example is a precedent for an incumbent Democratic president overcoming a “thumping” (George W. Bush’s term) in the off-year and winning reelection by a nontrivial margin. What I think these numbers suggest is that, absent a considerable redefinition by the incumbent president, he or his party’s nominee is likely to run just about as well (or poorly) in the next presidential election as his party’s House candidates did in the most recent off-year elections. The off-year vote represents a settled opinion on how the president and his party have performed in nearly two years in office, and unless the president takes a significantly different course toward governing, as Bill Clinton arguably did in 1995-1996, then that settled verdict remains more or less in place. Or so the numbers suggest.

Another way to compare off-year elections and the next presidential elections is to look at them in terms of electoral votes. The procedure is to assign to each party all the electoral votes in each state in which they carry the vote for the House (with the District of Columbia’s three electoral votes always assigned to the Democrats). To some extent this is fictional, since both parties strive hard to win popular vote pluralities for president in any state which is seriously contested, while few if any practical politicians care very much about whether their party carries the popular vote in their state for House of Representatives; they care instead about how many House seats it wins. The putative electoral vote totals are significantly affected by which party wins the House popular vote in large states where the parties are nearly evenly divided: a few votes may tip the putative electoral vote balance quite a lot. Nonetheless, if the House popular vote is a reasonable proxy for opinion on the parties, this may be worth looking at retrospectively. Omitting the 1994 and 1996 cycles, where it is plain that the off-year result was not predictive of the outcome of the next presidential contest, we get the following results, showing the putative electoral votes in House races and the actual electoral votes in presidential races (with faithless electors assigned to the party voters assumed they would vote for).

Table 3

Barone-Table 3

The 1998 and 2002 off-year House popular vote, expressed in electoral vote terms, turned out to be very predictive of the actual electoral vote in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. The 2006 off-year House popular vote, expressed in electoral vote terms, turned out to be somewhat less predictive, although it is interesting that Senator John McCain won a number of electoral votes almost exactly equal to the average that Republicans won of the 2006 and 2008 House popular vote, expressed in electoral vote terms. The big difference between the putative electoral vote in those two elections can be accounted for by Democratic margins in 2008 in states with considerable numbers of electoral votes that had Republican margins in 2006: Arizona (10), Georgia (15), Indiana (11), Missouri (11), Virginia (13), and Wisconsin (10).

The personal popularity of some members enables them to run significantly ahead of their party and that effect is especially visible in small states.

There are limits to the usefulness of the House popular vote as an indicator of the likely presidential vote, however. The personal popularity of some members enables them to run significantly ahead of their party and that effect is especially visible in small states. A prime example is North Dakota, which elected Democratic congressmen in its single at-large seat in every election from 1980 to 2008, although it did not vote Democratic for president in any election in that period. In addition, incumbents who are beaten when their party is in bad odor with the voters tend to get significantly higher percentages than the candidate of their party in the election two years later, even when the balance of opinion hasn’t changed significantly. This helps to account for the fact that Republican House candidates carried the states listed in the last paragraph in 2006 but did not in 2008.

We see the same effect in the 2010 results. One of the striking things here is that Democrats carried the House vote in only three states between the Northeast (where they carried all New England states except New Hampshire, New York, Maryland, and Delaware) and the Pacific Coast (where they carried California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii). Those three interior states were Illinois and Minnesota, normally more Democratic than the nation as a whole, and New Mexico, where going into the 2010 election all three incumbents were Democrats. Had there been three open seat contests in New Mexico, it seems likely that Republicans would have carried the popular vote there—though that is necessarily a guess.

In any case, to get a sense of regional response it makes sense to clump states together rather than to try to look at each individual state. The following table shows the Republican percentage in House elections in five Northern regions and two Southern Regions in every election from 2000 to 2010.

Table 4

Barone-Table 4

In general, the 2010 numbers look quite a lot like those from 2002 and 2004, while the 2006 and 2008 numbers are significantly different, and this is true in four of our seven regions. The Jacksonian region is significantly more Republican in 2010 than in 2002-2004; this is in part a result of the 2003 Texas redistricting plan, which resulted in the retirement or defeat of several white Democratic House members, but it is also a reflection of the considerable unpopularity of the dovish Obama in this hawkish region, which was apparent in 2008 in both the Democratic primaries and the general election (in which Obama did not come close to carrying any of these nine states, five of which voted for Bill Clinton in 1992). Note that the Republican percentage increased 11% in Jacksonian America between 2008 and 2010, the biggest such increase in the nation, and that this region in 2010 was distinctly the most Republican, which certainly was not the case in 2000-2004.

Also, Republicans ran slightly better in Germano-Scandinavian America in 2010 than they had in 2002-2004; this has traditionally been the most dovish or isolationist part of the country, and these results may have reflected an aversion to the assertive foreign and military policy of George W. Bush combined with a lack of enthusiasm in response to Obama’s incomplete reversal of those policies.

Which America will we be living in for the 2012 election? Recent precedent suggests it will resemble 2010 and 2002-2004 America more than 2006-2008 America.

The one region where Republicans ran worse in 2010 than in 2002-2004 is the Frontier. Part of the reason is the increasing participation of Latino voters in Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado, which enabled Obama to carry the latter two states and might have made Arizona a battleground had it not been the home state of John McCain. In contrast, Colorado and Arizona were not target states in the 2000 or 2004 presidential elections. The Frontier states voted solidly Republican in 2010, but not as heavily as in 2002-2004 or even 2000.

In contrast, the South Atlantic, the other major region that switched from Republican majorities in 2002-2004 to even voting or Democratic majorities in 2006-2008, switched back in 2010 to become as heavily Republican as it was in 2002-2004.

Looking back over a decade of the popular vote for the House, we see a nation that appears marginally Republican in 2000-2004 and again in 2010 (Republicans’ 48% of the House vote in 2000 was fractionally larger than the Democrats’ percentage that year) and rather solidly Democratic in 2006-2008. In the rather solidly Democratic nation, no region is heavily or reliably Republican, while Democrats carry the Foundry and Germano-Scandinavian America by small margins and the North Atlantic and Pacific by very wide margins. In the marginally Republican nation, only the North Atlantic and Pacific are solidly Democratic, while both Southern regions and the Frontier are pretty solidly Republican (though the Frontier may be getting less so), and Republicans are highly competitive in the Foundry and Germano-Scandinavian America.

Which America will we be living in for the 2012 election? Recent precedent suggests it will resemble 2010 and 2002-2004 America more than 2006-2008 America. But there can be no certainty about the outcome. A more modest suggestion may be in order. In making assessments about possible outcomes, psephologists would be wise to keep in mind not only the 2008 vote for president, which is commonly used as a benchmark, but also the popular vote for the House in 2010, which helps us understand the range of possibilities as we try to look ahead.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Barone's other contributions to THE AMERICAN include,“It Depends on What the Definition of ‘Austerity’ Is,” “The Democrats Have a Concentration Problem,” and “America in an Age of Open Field Politics.”He has also written “Federal Expansion the Real Issue in Debt Ceiling Debate,” “New Reality Emerging on Illegal Immigration,” and “‘Man-Cession’ Ends as Males Learn New Job Skills.”


1. Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont.
2. Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania.
3. Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin.
4. Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming.
5. California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington.    
6. Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia.
7. Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

Most Viewed Articles

Peanut Butter’s Many Inventors By Edward Tenner 08/22/2014
The popular product illustrates both the opportunities and the risks of intellectual property.
Flash Point: New Oil-by-Rail Rules By Kenneth P. Green 08/20/2014
Proposed regulations of oil-bearing trains pose several challenges and divert us from more ...
‘The American Banking System Might Not Last Until Monday’ By Alex J. Pollock 08/18/2014
Learning from the crises you’ve forgotten.
A Flawed E-Cigarette Regulation By Sally Satel and Alan D. Viard 08/16/2014
The FDA's proposed regulation should not go forward in its current form, or it will undermine ...
100 Years of the Panama Canal By John Steele Gordon 08/15/2014
One of the supreme engineering feats of the early 20th century, the canal has been an immense boon ...