With the political media sorting through the meaning of last night’s electoral results, a lot of reporters paid attention today when GOP strategist Rory Cooper tweeted this:
Under President Obama, Democrats have lost 900+ state legislature seats, 12 governors, 69 House seats, 13 Senate seats. That's some legacy.
— Rory Cooper (@rorycooper) November 4, 2015
That does sound awful! And it is very bad. But it may not be quite this bad. The suggestion of a loss of 69 House seats and 13 Senate seats in particular is based on this Politifact analysis, which appears to tally up those losses by comparing the number of House and Senate seats Dems held when Barack Obama took office on Inauguration Day 2009 with the number they hold today.
But the always-excellent Ron Brownstein has suggested a somewhat different metric. Brownstein posits that the fairer way to measure this is to look at the number of seats that Democrats held after the election that took place before Obama won the presidency — that is, after the 2006 elections — and compare that total with the number they hold today (and, ultimately, to the number they hold after the election of his successor). Those results look somewhat different:
Using that yardstick, we would measure Obama by comparing the Democratic standing after 2006 (the last election before his first presidential campaign) with the party’s position after 2016 (the race to succeed him). For Bill Clinton, say, the equivalent comparison would be 1990 to 2000.
So far, Democrats under Obama are down five Senate seats (from 51 in 2006 to a likely 46 today, counting independents who caucus with them) and around 45 House seats, depending on final recounts.
And Brownstein adds that by this metric, three other recent presidents fared worse than Obama, one of them being George W. Bush:
Three times since World War II, a two-term president’s party has lost more combined congressional seats by the end of the race to succeed him: During Clinton’s presidency, Democrats lost six Senate and 56 House seats; under George W. Bush, Republicans lost 14 Senate and 45 House seats; behind Dwight Eisenhower, the GOP lost 12 Senate and 46 House seats.
The main reason for measuring this Brownstein’s way is that it does not end up penalizing the president in office for the gains that his party racked up during the first election in which he was at the top of the ticket. In other words, the Democratic Party’s gains in the 2008 election grew their majorities in part because of Obama. Therefore, the amount of seats that were lost during his presidency shouldn’t be measured as a decline from that high, because this metric inflates the size of the losses that are ascribed to him without crediting him at all for the gains that set the initial point from which those losses are being measured. That’s the rationale for using as the starting point the level of the parties’ control of Congress before the election that brought the president into office.
On the other hand, if you are trying to measure the impact of a particular presidency and its policies on control of Congress, then perhaps it makes some sense to tally up only the impact of the elections that occurred while that president was in office. As Larry Sabato recently demonstrated, while other presidents have posted large Congressional losses by this metric, Obama’s have indeed been historically high. But this still doesn’t quite take into account the broader context, which is that these losses are being measured against the level of control Democrats enjoyed after they racked up huge Congressional wins in two successive elections — 2006 and 2008 — amid George W. Bush’s soaring disapproval, a deeply unpopular war, and, in 2008, a cratering economy.
Ultimately, neither metric seems to quite do this question justice. But if you use Brownstein’s, Obama’s impact on Dem control of Congress hasn’t been all that awful in historic terms. (None of this takes into account the massive losses Democrats have suffered on the level of the states. This has also happened under previous presidents. But Democrats themselves do concede that their state-level losses in the Obama era have left the party in a deep hole that could take years to fix).
It’s also worth noting that this would not be the first time that major progressive legislative gains on the national level (such as the Affordable Care Act) have been followed by dramatic losses. After Congress passed major Great Society legislation and Lyndon Johnson signed it in the mid-1960s, Democrats lost dozens of Congressional seats in the 1966 and 1968 elections, which were partly driven by a backlash against Johnson’s expansions of government. Some of the pillars of the Great Society nonetheless endured, and a half century later, programs like Medicare are central to the identity of the Democratic Party and are practically politically sacrosanct.
Ultimately, as Brownstein says, we don’t yet know how much damage the Obama era will have done to the Democratic Party, because the 2016 elections could of course leave the White House in Democratic hands and scale down the Dem losses in Congress. Republicans will probably hold the House into at least the next decade, but much of this has to do with population distribution patterns that have distributed Dem voters inefficiently. (Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman has said that what Dems really need is a “massive resettlement program.”) Meanwhile, on the level of the states, there is the potential for a great deal of turnover of governors’ mansions in the next four years, and we may not know how that will shake out until 2018 and beyond. The long term Dem goal is to be in a better position in the states by 2020, partly in hopes that the next round of redistricting can help break the GOP hammerlock on the House.
The bottom line is we may not have a clear impact of the Obama era’s impact on the Democratic Party for years to come.