Obama's Coattails and the Senate Majority

The latest wave of polling has been an almost uninterrupted parade of good news for Barack Obama – widening leads in national surveys, solid advantages in most swing states, and startling strength in numerous Republican bastions.

It could all mean nothing, of course. Michael Dukakis led George H. W. Bush by 13 points at this moment in 1988, a margin that would swell to 17 points after the July Democratic convention only to evaporate by Labor Day, never to reappear.

But Obama seems a far more durable candidate than Dukakis, while John McCain leads a Republican Party that is in a state of disrepair unimaginable 20 years ago. The potential clearly exists not just for a Democratic victory this November, but for a decisive one. And that raises the question of coattails.

Even though we hear about them every four years, most national elections come and go without coattails playing a significant role. In 1984, for example, Ronald Reagan won one of the most overwhelming landslides in history, a 49-part romp over Walter Mondale in which Reagan racked up nearly 60 percent of the popular vote. But his party actually lost two Senate seats.

The same has been true in more recent elections. Bill Clinton cruised to reelection in 1996, tallying 379 electoral votes. But Democrats suffered a net loss of two Senate seats. Even last time around, when George W. Bush was reelected and his party picked up four Senate seats, coattails were present, but not an overwhelming factor. The G.O.P. gains of 2004 can be attributed in large part to geographic serendipity – five Democrats from red states in the South left their seats, all of which were unsurprisingly claimed by Republicans. Outside of the South, Democrats picked off two Republican seats, while the G.O.P. won over one Democratic seat.

Very rarely, though, an election will prove to be the exception to the coattail rule. The last one came in 1980, when Reagan routed Jimmy Carter and Democrats lost an astonishing 12 Senate seats, and there are some potentially significant parallels between that year and this one.

Reagan, like Obama now, was initially viewed with trepidation by his party’s establishment. He was a conservative ideologue in a country in which center-left sensibilities had long prevailed. His campaign, Republicans feared and pundits widely agreed, would ultimately scare away middle-of-the-road swing voters.

In reality, the pieces were actually in place for a monster Republican year, from Reagan on down. For one thing, Reagan proved to be a far more likable candidate than most imagined, with a warm manner and a knack for memorable one-liners. That likability — later dubbed “Teflon” by Pat Schroeder — insulated Reagan from most of the attacks on his ideology.

Plus, the Carter name and the Democratic brand were in sad shape by 1980. Reagan’s anti-government pitch, which had fallen on deaf ears when Barry Goldwater made it 16 years earlier, suddenly found a receptive audience after a decade marked by the public’s declining trust in its leaders and faltering confidence in its government. This mood not only imperiled Carter – it softened up many of the Democrats running on the ballot with him.

Meanwhile, grass-roots conservative activists, from Christian social conservatives who felt betrayed by Carter to America-firsters outraged by the loss of the Panama Canal, had mobilized like never before, and their aim was not just on Carter but also a batch of high-profile Democratic senators – like Birch Bayh, Frank Church, George McGovern and Warren Magnuson, symbols all of a governing philosophy anathema to the right.

Heading into the ’80 election, Republicans faced a 58-41-1 deficit in the Senate (59-41 for all practical purposes, with independent Harry Byrd mostly siding with the Democrats) and hadn’t controlled either House of Congress since 1954.

But on Election Day, Reagan carried 44 states, and Republicans claimed one Democratic Senate seat after another: Dan Quayle took out Bayh in Indiana; James Abdnor knocked off McGovern in South Dakota; Steve Symms unseated Idaho’s Church; Slade Gorton took down Magnuson in Washington; Warren Rudman topped John Durkin in New Hampshire; Paula Hawkins derailed Bill Gunter (who had defeated incumbent Richard Stone in a primary) in Florida; Jeremiah Denton beat Jim Folsom (who’d ousted incumbent Don Stewart in a primary) in Alabama; Mack Mattingly edged out Georgia’s long-serving Herman Talmadge; Charles Grassley blasted John Culver in Iowa; John Porter East (a Jesse Helms disciple who’d end up killing himself in 1986) beat out North Carolina’s Robert Burren Morgan; Robert Kasten claimed Gaylord Nelson’s Wisconsin seat; and Frank Murkowski beat Clark Gruening in Alaska (after Gruening defeated incumbent Mike Gravel in a primary).

Not a single Republican incumbent was defeated and not a single Republican seat was claimed by the Democrats – even in New York, where Al D’Amato beat Jacob Javits in the G.O.P. primary and survived in November. And it could have been even worse for the Democrats: Pat Leahy in Vermont and Gary Hart in Colorado each survived by less than two points, and Tom Eagleton in Missouri held on by just four. A 15-seat pick-up for the Republicans could conceivably have been attained.

Obama, like Reagan, has a veneer of likability that seems to insulate him from attacks that have destroyed previous Democratic nominees. And the country is just as dispirited as it was in 1980, disillusioned not just with George W. Bush and the Republican Party but with conservatism as it has been defined by the G.O.P.’s actions this decade. Plus, just as the conservative base was activated in ’80, the Democratic grass roots is hyper-engaged in this campaign, at both the presidential and Congressional levels, and Obama’s campaign – now free from federal spending limits – is poised to make an unprecedented investment in all 50 states.

(Of course, as I’ve noted before, if Obama wins and the Democrats expand their Senate majority, that’s when they’ll have their work cut out for them. Of those 12 Republicans who won Democratic seats in 1980, only six held onto them in the next election, in 1986, when the Democrats won back control of the chamber and held it until 1994.)

In 1980, voters signaled through the Republican landslide their readiness to move past the New Deal and Great Society eras. They may see this year as a similar chance to step away from the conservatism that they embraced 28 years ago.

Only one Democratic Senate seat is in any realistic danger this year – Mary Landrieu’s in Louisiana – and even she seems in decent shape. Right now, pundits are typically forecasting a gain of four seats for the Democrats. But the playing field keeps expanding. Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Oregon – four states that were won by John Kerry but that have Republican incumbents – were supposed to be their main targets, along with open Republican-held seats in Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico. But now some of the reddest states are in play, or quickly heading that way: Alaska, North Carolina, Mississippi, Kentucky, perhaps even Kansas.

Add all of these together and Democrats have at least a theoretical chance of vying for 12 G.O.P.-held seats. Obviously, all of the experts are saying, they won’t win them all, or even most of them. And they may well be right. But it’s worth remembering that the experts said the exact same thing about the Republicans in 1980. Obama's Coattails and the Senate Majority