As late as a few hours before the polls closed on Tuesday night, pundits were thinking Republican Ed Gillespie could pull off an upset in Virginia’s open-seat gubernatorial race.
When the votes were tallied, however, they showed that Gillespie’s bid ran aground in a Democratic wave. Not only did Gillespie lose to Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam by a nine-point margin, 54 percent to 45 percent, his Republican Party also lost the other statewide offices on the ballot and were even in danger of seeing 17 seats flip in the state House, enough to give Democrats control.
The Democratic tide rolled strong elsewhere around the country on Election Day. A Democrat succeeded New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie; a Democrat won a special election to tip control of Washington state’s Senate; Maine voters approved a ballot measure to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act; Democrats flipped several GOP-held legislative seats in Georgia; and Democrats won a bevy of mayoral races nationwide.
Most political observers are explaining the losses as a backlash against President Donald Trump. That makes sense — but it’s a result hardly unique to Trump.
"Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for," Trump tweeted shortly after the race was called for Northam. "Don’t forget, Republicans won 4 out of 4 House seats, and with the economy doing record numbers, we will continue to win, even bigger than before!"
Those big wins are far from certain, however. The presidential party’s loss of seats further down the ballot is one of the most ironclad rules of American politics.
So let’s look at some context you should know when digesting yesterday’s election results.
Life in the upside down
Consider the following chart, which shows the losses during the terms of each two-term president (or pair of same-party presidents) since World War II. (It’s our updated version of a chart originally compiled by Larry Sabato and Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia.)
The red columns are the change over eight years in U.S. Senate seats held by the president’s party; the blue columns show losses in U.S. House seats; the orange columns show losses in governorships; and the green columns show losses in state legislative chambers controlled.
If the design of the chart seems bottom-heavy, it is. Since World War II, the chart shows, no two-term president (or presidential tag team) has ever gained Senate seats, House seats, governorships, or state legislative chambers over an eight-year period. Rather, every single presidency has suffered substantial losses in each of those categories over the past seven decades. There has literally been no upside in down-ballot races for presidents as far back as Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Call it the presidential penalty. Or the curse of the White House.
Why does this happen?
It probably has something to do with an impulse toward checks and balances. Or perhaps you could call it a crankiness spawned by presidents’ inevitable shortcomings.
As John Avlon, editor of the Daily Beast put it on CNN on Nov. 8, "Opposition motivates people more than proposition. Being against something, being against the incumbent, really rallies folks to go to the polls. But standing for something doesn’t have the same force." You can read more about that way of thinking here.
That’s not to say that every president has suffered equally. "The more unpopular the president, the worse his party does in off-year and midterm elections," said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist.
Specifically, Abramowitz said, in the 18 midterm elections since World War II, the president’s party has lost an average of 25 seats in the U.S. House. However, when the president’s approval rating in the Gallup Poll was above 50 percent, the average seat loss in the House was only 10 seats. By contrast, when the president’s approval rating was under 50 percent, the average seat loss was 37 seats.
Trump’s Gallup approval rating as of Nov. 7 stood at 38 percent.
Obama suffered particularly hard down-ballot. For each type of office, Obama’s losses were bigger on a percentage basis than either of his two immediate predecessors.
Some of this stems from quirks unique to Obama’s tenure. His disastrous 2010 midterm election came at a terrible juncture for Democrats. In many states, the newly elected Republican governors and legislators were able to draw GOP-friendly lines as part of the once-every-decade redistricting.
That said, a pattern that may be with us for a while — partisan polarization — is probably a factor as well.
Sabato told us previously that voters and candidates have increasingly moved away from centrist voting habits that dominated the 1970s through 1990s. During that period, voters were likelier to deviate from party lines after making their presidential pick. More recently, he said, "more and more people will stay in the same column from the White House to the courthouse, voting for either Democrats or Republicans."
This trend toward polarization seems likely to hamper the current occupant of the White House as well — and the impact could be sharpened further by how unpopular Trump is.
"If he remains this unpopular or becomes even more unpopular — and his approval rating has been trending gradually downward — I would expect Republicans to suffer major losses in the midterm elections," Abramowitz said.
Contact Louis Jacobson at [email protected] Follow @loujacobson.