The Down Side of Winning the White House

As Democrats did in the Obama era, the GOP prepares to see its ranks thinned this year.

FILE - In this Nov. 7, 2012 file photo, President Barack Obama and wife Michelle holds hands with Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill following Obama's victory speech to supporters in Chicago.
AP Photo/Jerome Delay
Aug. 16, 2018, 8 p.m.

It’s ironic how much members of a party desperately want to retake the White House, then when they do, they spend the next four or eight years paying for that success.

After eight years of President George W. Bush in the White House, Democrats could just taste winning it back and were overjoyed when Barack Obama was elected. Yet from the day Obama took office until the day he left, Democrats lost 63 House seats (from 257 to 194), 10 Senate seats (from 58 to 48), 12 state governorships (from 29 to 16), and 954 state legislative seats (from 4,082 to 3,128). This is not to poke at Obama—after all, eight-year presidencies typically result in substantial party losses—but by the end of his second term, Democrats did have fewer elected officeholders than at any time since the 1920s.

Democrats have discovered that elections really do have consequences—especially those who either stayed home in November 2016 or threw votes away to Green Party nominee Jill Stein or Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party. Perhaps a certain amount of guilt on the part of those voters is driving much of what appears to be a blue wave in this election cycle.

Simultaneously, Republicans are coming to terms with the reality that the 2018 midterms are shaping up to be a train wreck, a slow-moving and agonizing collision between what they have wanted—unified Republican government—and the inevitable consequence of having total responsibility and accountability for federal and state government. Midterm elections tend to be bad for the incumbent party, but when it holds all of the reins of power, they tend to be even worse.

It is an exaggeration to say that Republicans would need a miracle to retain their House majority, but that is certainly closer to being true than suggesting that House control is a 50-50 proposition. Today, the most likely outcome in the House would be a Democratic gain of between 20 and 40 seats, with the chances of it being more than 40 greater than it being under 20. Put another way, the House odds are not a symmetrical bell curve, but rather a curve with a fat tail for Democrats—in other words, the downside risk for the GOP of an unmitigated disaster are greater than a not-as-bad-as-expected outcome.

For governors and their state legislative chambers, there isn’t any doubt that it will be a tough night for Republicans. The only question is how tough. Given the “exotic” nature of some Republican nominees, for instance the recent primary winners in Kansas and Minnesota, it could be getting worse.

The devolution of power down to the states also means that the policy consequences of large partisan gains and losses in the states are greater than ever, to say nothing of the implications for redistricting in 2021.

The Senate remains the one possible— some would say probable—silver lining for the GOP. Given the low numbers of seats that hey’re defending, and the placement of those seats, it is as if the Senate elections are being held in an entirely different place (or time) altogether. It is not hard to imagine no net changes in the Senate, or either side picking up one or two seats—a rough political equilibrium that comes from Democrats having a strong advantage in terms of the national political environment and the Republicans having the strongest map in modern history.

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