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2014 Midterms: Another Six-Year Senate Sweep?

Friday, July 11, 2014

The conventional wisdom that presidents tend to suffer serious losses in Senate elections in their sixth year in office is less elucidating than it might first appear, although it does appear likely that the Democrats will lose the Senate this year.

The conventional political wisdom is that presidents tend to suffer serious losses in Senate elections in their sixth year in office. Presidential coattails swept in a certain number of senators of their own party in their first election, and when those senators come up for reelection six years later — in a time when typically dissatisfaction with the president has grown — some of them are swept out of office.

This theory gets superficial confirmation when you look at Senate elections in presidents’ sixth year in office. George W. Bush’s party lost its majority in the Senate in his sixth year, 2006, and Barack Obama’s party could very well lose its Senate majority this year. But the analogy doesn’t always hold. Bush had swept few if any Republicans into the Senate in 2000, when he lost the popular vote and Democrats gained Senate seats. Bill Clinton’s party lost its majority in the Senate, and in the House too, in his second not his sixth year in office, and didn’t lose any Senate seats, and actually gained a few in the House, in his sixth year. Ronald Reagan’s party lost eight Senate seats and its Senate majority in his sixth year, but all of those losses were by narrow margins with the single exception of a heavily Democratic state where the popular Republican incumbent retired. 

So the conventional wisdom is less elucidating than it might first appear. One reason is that not all Senate election cycles are the same: comparing them is like comparing apples and oranges. The Constitution sets Senate terms at six years and provides that only one-third of them come up for election in every even-numbered election year. Senators elected in the same year are assigned to a class. Class 1 seats were most recently up for election in 2012, Class 2 seats in 2008, and Class 3 seats in 2010. The regional breakdown of these seats is quite different, as shown in the following chart:


Thus the East is heavily represented in the Class 1 seats, with every Eastern state but New Hampshire, while the South is heavily represented in the Class 2 seats, with every Southern state but Florida. The political leanings of the classes are different as well, as indicated in this chart showing the percentages for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012:


The alert reader will note that Obama’s average percentage for all states is below his percentage of the popular vote — and below Romney’s average percentage for all states. That is because we are averaging the state percentages, so that Wyoming counts the same as California — as it does in the Senate. Obama still has an advantage in the Class 1 states, which came up for election in 2012, which helps to explain why Republicans failed that year to secure a majority in the Senate and in fact lost a net two seats. But Obama and Democrats are clearly at a disadvantage in the Class 2 seats that are up this year.

And it is a greater disadvantage than the last three reelected presidents had in the Senate races in the sixth years of their presidencies. The following table shows the percentages won by each president in gaining reelection nationally, in the states with Senate contests in his sixth year, and in those Senate seats held by his party and those held by the opposition party.



Thus George W. Bush in 2006 had a stronger hand, but nonetheless saw his party lose its Senate majority as his job approval sunk to levels below where Barack Obama’s is today. His Republican Party lost six Senate seats and gained none. In 1998, Bill Clinton’s job approval was much higher, above 60 percent, and his Democratic Party lost three Senate seats but captured three others, for no net change in party balance. Ronald Reagan went into the 1986 off-year with similarly high job approval, but nevertheless saw his party lose a net eight Senate seats. Republicans lost four seats in Southern states, where many voters were still inclined to give favorable consideration to purportedly moderate Democrats, and two in the Dakotas, which since the 1960s have shown a predilection for electing Democratic senators even while almost always voting Republican for president.

That willingness of white voters in the once solidly Democratic South to continue voting Democratic for senator is apparent also when we look at the historical performance of the two parties in the three classes of Senate elections over the last half-century. Class 3 seats, which include every Southern state except Florida, started off heavily Democratic in the 1962 election, then moved toward Republicans in 1968, tilted heavily Democratic in the Watergate year of 1974 and then heavily Republican in the Reagan year of 1980. As we have seen, Democrats made (usually by small margins) significant gains in these seats in 1986 and held a majority of them in the 1992 and 1998 elections. Republicans won a small majority of those seats in 2004, as George W. Bush was reelected, and then a large (24-10) majority in 2010. Those seats come up again in 2016, leading some analysts to opine that even if Republicans win a Senate majority in 2014 they may have trouble holding it two years later.

The Class 1 Senate seats, including 10 of 11 Eastern states, have been a Democratic stronghold since the 1958 off-year elections (an example of the conventional wisdom, perhaps: big Republican losses in the sixth year of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency), with the single exception of 1994, when Republicans won a majority (19-14) of these seats. But Democrats reversed that in 2000 and came out of the 2006 and 2012 elections with huge majorities (24-9 and 25-8) of the Class 1 seats. These will be up for reelection in 2018, and if Republicans are vulnerable to losing seats in 2016, so Democrats may be two years afterwards. The following table shows for each election year the number of Republicans and Democrats elected in seats of the class up in that year; these do not include the number of those elected to fill unexpired terms in those elections.


As for the Class 2 seats which are up this year, Democrats did better in 2008 in that class’s seats than they have in any year since 1960, the last year in which there were no Southern Republicans in the Senate. They appear to be hard-pressed to duplicate that showing this year, given the large number of Southern seats in this class, the fact that this was the weakest of the three classes in terms of Obama percentage in 2012, and the polls showing negative job approval of the president. These factors, more than the conventional political wisdom’s six-year itch, are working powerfully against the Democrats this year.

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

FURTHER READING:  Barone also writes "The Almanac of American Politics: Breaking Down the 2012 Election," "From McGovern to Obama," and "States Aren't Red or Blue Forever." John Steele Gordon contributes "Time for a New Contract with America." Michael M. Rosen discusses "How to Clean Up the Senate’s Nuclear Fallout."


Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group






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