Democrats Face Unholy 2016 Choice: GOP Or Gridlock

Democrats have no shot of reclaiming Congress in 2016, even if they win the White House

NEW YORK - AUGUST 31: A delegate wears glasses featuring an elephant, the symbol of the Republican party, on the convention floor during the opening of night two of the Republican National Convention August 31, 2004 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A delegate wears glasses featuring an elephant, the symbol of the Republican party, during the Republican National Convention August 31, 2004 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Regardless of what happens in the upcoming presidential election, the Republican Party is almost guaranteed to maintain control of at least one chamber of the U.S. Congress.

Aside from the difficulties inherent in picking up either at least four Senate seats and a minimum of 30 seats in the House of Representatives, the Democrats also face a daunting historical pattern.

The problem for Democrats in the 2016 Congressional elections is this: Americans generally only change partisan control of one or both chambers of Congress when they are in the process of throwing out the incumbent president’s party. This longstanding historical trend does not bode well for Democrats’ hopes of giving a new Democratic president (should Team Blue win the presidential election) a Democratic-controlled Congress.

Since direct election of Senators began with the 1914 midterm elections, there have been 12 elections in which at least one chamber of Congress has changed partisan control.

Seven of these elections were midterms in which the president’s party relinquished control of at least one chamber (1918, 1946, 1954, 1986, 1990, 2010, 2014), and all but one (2010) resulted in the opposition party controlling both the House and Senate. (Only the Democrats’ massive 59-41 Senate majority going into their 2010 midterm wipeout prevented their loss of the chamber, in which they lost six seats but retained a 53-47 advantage.)

In the last 150 years, there have only been three elections in which the incumbent president’s party won control of at least one chamber of Congress which the opposition party held going into the election.

Three of these elections occurred in presidential election years in which the White House changed from one party to the other, and the incoming president’s party regained control of at least one chamber of Congress previously held by the opposing party (1932, 1952, 1980). All three of these elections were massive landslides in which the incoming presidents—Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, respectively—each exceeded 440 electoral votes and lost nine states or fewer. (FDR and Reagan lost only six states each in defeating unpopular, incumbent presidents.)

Only two of these 12 elections over the last century saw the incumbent president’s party regain control of at least one chamber of Congress it previously did not hold, and only one of those was a presidential election. In 1948, President Harry Truman not only surprised pundits by winning election to a new term, but also helped carry in new Democratic majorities in the previously Republican-controlled House and Senate. In the 2002 midterms, with Republicans already in control of the House and the White House, President George W. Bush’s party made a net gain of two seats to reclaim control of a closely divided Senate.

Going back further, between the end of the Civil War (1865) and the enactment of the 17th Amendment providing for direct, popular election of U.S. Senators (1913), there were seven elections in which partisan control changed in the House of Representatives. These included five midterm elections (1874, 1882, 1890, 1894, 1910), all of which saw the president’s party lose control of the House, and three presidential elections, one of which saw the incoming president’s party take over the House from the outgoing party (1888). Only one of these elections resulted in an incumbent party retaining the presidency and simultaneously reclaiming the House (1880).

If Democrats lose the presidential election in November, they’d better start boning up on the Senate’s arcane filibuster rules.

 

In short, in the last 150 years, there have only been three elections in which the incumbent president’s party won control of at least one chamber of Congress which the opposition party held going into the election (1880, 1948, 2002), and these rare occurrences have happened at the rate of about once every half-century. It has been much more common for the voters to throw the incumbent president’s party out, which has happened 15 times since the Civil War. This would indicate that the Republican majority in the House is almost impregnable and the GOP’s threatened majority in the Senate may well also hold, even if the Democrats retain the White House next November. History tells us that the Democratic nominee crowned in Philadelphia next July needs to have a strategy for how to work with a Congress in which at least one chamber, and very possibly both, will be Republican-controlled.

On the flip side, if the Republicans reclaim the White House in 2016, history indicates that they will almost inevitably make a clean sweep and end up in control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress. If Democrats lose the presidential election in November, they’d better start boning up on the Senate’s arcane filibuster rules.

Cliston Brown is a communications executive and political analyst in the San Francisco Bay Area who previously served as director of communications to a longtime Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Facebook or on Twitter: @ClistonBrown.