Party-building success through the lens of history


During his first term, George W. Bush was arguably the most successful party-building president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Like FDR, who fashioned a Democratic coalition that dominated American politics for a generation, Bush during his first four years in office helped the Republicans post gains in Congress and around the country that many in the party viewed as the cornerstone for a similarly long-lived GOP majority.

But during his seemingly ill-starred second term, the Republicans have hemorrhaged seats up and down the ballot–losing their majorities in both houses of Congress, dropping hundreds of seats in the state legislatures, and giving up enough governorships to leave the GOP with less than half of them for the first time in more than a decade.

As a result, with barely a year to go in his administration, that part of Bush’s legacy–as a party builder par excellence–remains very much in question.

Over the course of his presidency, Bush has thrown himself into the role of party builder with gusto that few, if any, of his predecessors have matched. He has helped the GOP and its candidates raise tens of millions of dollars and he has stumped extensively for Republican candidates who tapped the White House for assistance.

Boosted by high approval ratings through much of his first term and with the Democrats on the defensive, Bush’s efforts to help his party initially paid off. In 2002, he became the first president since FDR in 1934 to see his party gain both House and Senate seats in his first midterm election.

In 2004, Republicans added more seats to their congressional majorities with Bush leading the GOP ticket. The Republican Senate total swelled to 55 seats and the GOP House total to 232, the highest post-election total for the party on the House side in nearly 60 years and equaling the GOP’s highest post-election total on the Senate side since the eve of the Great Depression in the late 1920s. A nation split 50-50 after the 2000 election looked after 2004 as though it was definitely leaning Republican.

Figure 1. GOP Builds Congressional Numbers in Bush’s First Term, Loses Ground in Second

Republicans steadily gained seats in both houses of Congress during President Bush’s first term, as well as maintaining a clear majority of the nation’s governorships. But since then, the GOP has been shedding seats at all levels. Recent Republican losses have paralleled a steady decline in the job approval ratings of Bush and the GOP Congress, which lost support at a rate of 10 to 15 percentage points in two-year intervals from 2002 to 2006. Numbers in bold indicate that the president’s party was in control of the chamber or held a majority of governorships.

2000 2002 2004 2006
Republican Seats (post election)
SENATE 50 51 55 49
HOUSE 221 229 232 202
GOVERNOR 29 26 28 22
Approval Ratings (election eve)
PRESIDENT BUSH 63% 48% 38%
CONGRESS 49% 50% 40% 26%

Sources: America Votes (CQ Press), Gallup Poll.

But Bush’s second term has thus far been an unmitigated disappointment for both the White House and the Republican Party. Led by growing voter frustration with the ongoing war in Iraq and a GOP Congress that was widely seen as a rubber stamp for the president, voter approval for both declined quickly in Bush’s second term. Presidential approval scores that hovered around 50 percent in 2004 had fallen under 40 percent by the time of the 2006 midterm elections, and congressional approval scores that had been around 40 percent in 2004 Gallup surveys had plummeted into the mid-20s at the time of last year’s Democratic comeback.

Yet the Republican setbacks of late are no disaster when viewed in historical terms. It has been the norm for two-term presidents to lose House and Senate seats over the course of their administrations. And the size of the Republicans’ falloff in Congress since Bush’s election in 2000–19 House seats and one Senate seat–is actually on the low side when compared to the drop suffered by parties of other two-term presidents at a comparable point in their second terms.

By the seven-year mark, Bill Clinton’s Democrats had lost nearly 50 House seats from his initial election in 1992, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Republicans had plummeted nearly 70 seats, and Woodrow Wilson’s Democrats had lost close to 100 House seats. On the Senate side, the Republican net loss of one seat during the Bush years has also been on the low end for two-term presidents. The result is that the Republicans are not so far down in the House or the Senate that they could not pick up at least one house of Congress in 2008 should the issues agenda shift in their direction.

Figure 2. A Decline in Congressional Allies the Norm for Two-Term Presidents

The Republicans have lost a net of 19 House seats and one Senate seat since George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, and in the process lost control of both houses of Congress. But compared to other two-term presidents over the past century, the GOP’s numerical losses have not been so bad. Most other presidents in a similar position have passed the midpoint of their second term with their party having suffered much greater losses in both the House and the Senate. Numbers in bold indicate that the president’s party was in control of the chamber.

Seats Held by the President’s Party

President Party Elections Start 6th-Year Election Change Start 6th-Year Election Change
Woodrow Wilson D 1912-18 290 191 -99 51 47 -4
W. Harding/C. Coolidge R 1920-26 300 237 -63 59 48 -11
Franklin Roosevelt D 1932-38 313 262 -51 59 69 +10
F. Roosevelt/H. Truman D 1944-50 243 234 -9 57 48 -9
Dwight Eisenhower R 1952-58 221 154 -67 48 34 -14
J. Kennedy/L. Johnson D 1960-66 263 248 -15 64 64 0
R. Nixon/G. Ford R 1968-74 192 144 -48 42 38 -4
Ronald Reagan R 1980-86 192 177 -15 53 45 -8
Bill Clinton D 1992-98 258 211 -47 57 45 -12
George W. Bush R 2000-06 221 202 -19 50 49 -1

Source: Vital Statistics on American Politics 2005-2006.

In short, the final verdict on President Bush as a party builder is yet to be delivered. While talk of a Republican majority has been muted, he continues to raise lots of money for the GOP and its candidates and remains popular with the party base.

To be sure, his overall job approval rating barely tops 30 percent these days. But that is still a few points higher than the score that voters give the Democratic-controlled Congress. Their approval rating in late 2007 is not much higher than the 23 percent score given the Democratic Congress in the Gallup Poll on the eve of the party’s titanic wipeout in 1994. And in the 2008 presidential trial heats between Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and GOP front-runner Rudy Giuliani, the Republicans are quite competitive. The lead has gone back and forth between the two over the course of 2007 with neither pulling very far ahead of the other.

What may be most ominous for Republican presidential prospects next year is the voters’ willingness (if not eagerness) in the last half century to say no to the party in power after two terms, and turn the keys to the Oval Office over to their rivals. Only once since 1952 has a party garnered the electoral votes needed to win three consecutive presidential elections–that being in 1988 when George H.W. Bush won what many have called Ronald Reagan’s “third term.”

The four other times since 1952 that a third consecutive term for one party was a possibility, the voters turned thumbs down, although each time the vote was close–1960, 1968, 1976, and most recently, the controversial, drawn-out election of 2000–which brought down the curtain on the presidency of Clinton I and raised it on Bush II.

Figure 3. Bush and Truman: Lowest Presidential Approval Scores at the 7-Year Mark

George W. Bush arrives near the end of his 7th year in office with the lowest job approval rating of any incumbent at a similar stage of his presidency since Harry Truman in late 1951. The Gallup Poll, which is used here, began measuring presidential approval in the 1930s. Since then, eight presidents have served two full terms, finished the second term of their predecessor, or finished a first term (or in Truman’s case, a fourth) and been elected to another. Those who assumed office after the death or resignation of their predecessor are indicated by a pound sign (#).

President Party Gallup Poll Date Approval Rating President’s Party in Next Presidental Election (popular vote margin)
President’s with Majority Approval
Dwight Eisenhower R Oct. 1959 67% Lost by 0.2%
Franklin Roosevelt D Oct. 1939 63% WON by 10%
Bill Clinton D Oct. 1999 59% Won by 0.5%, lost electoral vote
Ronald Reagan R Oct. 1987 51% WON by 8%
Presidents with Less than Majority Approval
Gerald Ford# R Oct.-Nov. 1975 44% Lost by 2%
Lyndon Johnson# D Oct.-Nov. 1967 41% Lost by 0.7%
George W. Bush R Nov. 2007 31%
Harry Truman# D Oct. 1951 29% Lost by 11%

Source: Gallup Poll.