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What a Drag

U.Va. Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato is contributing a regular column to Politico Magazine. This week, he examines the presidential party’s penalty for holding the White House: losing ground everywhere else. This article originally appeared in Politico Magazine on Dec. 1, 2014.

Think of the billions the parties must raise to elect a president in 2016. Consider the millions of paid and volunteer man-hours that will be devoted to this enterprise. The White House is the center of the partisan political universe, and Democrats and Republicans alike measure success or failure by their ability to win and hold the presidency.

Instead, maybe they ought to hope they lose. The surest price the winning party will pay is defeat of hundreds of their most promising candidates and officeholders for Senate, House, governorships, and state legislative posts. Every eight-year presidency has emptied the benches for the triumphant party, and recently it has gotten even worse. (By the way, the two recent one-term presidents, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, also cost their parties many lower-level offices, but in both cases this didn’t happen until they were defeated for reelection.)

Since World War II there have been eight two-term presidencies: Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, plus the reasonable succession combos of Franklin Roosevelt-Harry Truman, John Kennedy-Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon-Gerald Ford. Not a one has left his party in better shape that he found it, at least in terms of lower elected offices.

Naturally, there are differences. As in all other categories, some presidents were more damaging than others. And while his record is not yet complete, since the 2016 cycle still awaits, Barack Obama is well on his way to becoming the most harmful to his sub-presidential party of all modern chief executives.

From Truman to Obama, it’s a sorry record. Take a glance down this chart, compiled by my colleague Geoffrey Skelley, which catalogues the injury done to each president’s party during his (or their) eight years at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue:

Notes: Senate data do not include independents or members of third parties caucusing with president’s party. Having become states in 1959, Alaska and Hawaii’s data are not included prior to John Kennedy. Until Minnesota changed its law in 1973, Minnesota and Nebraska had technically nonpartisan legislatures (Nebraska still has one today). Therefore, Minnesota’s state legislative data are not included prior to Ronald Reagan, and Nebraska’s data are excluded throughout.

SourcesU.S. SenateU.S. HouseCQ Press Guide to U.S. Elections, vol. ii, sixth ed.NCSLThe Book of States, vols. 9-34PolidataParty Affiliation in the State LegislaturesCrystal Ball research

Some presidents did fairly well by their parties, relatively speaking. Truman’s nearly eight years in office came at the end of an extraordinarily long period of Democratic control (1932-1952), yet his losses — while serious — were modest compared to many of his successors.

Eisenhower left the GOP in much worse shape when he left office in 1961, with a net loss of 14 governors, 12 senators, 48 House members, and a whopping 843 state legislators. Republicans wouldn’t recover much of this ground until Reagan.

Kennedy’s Democrats were in solid shape in all categories during his brief tenure, but despite a landslide with lengthy coattails for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Democrats had suffered major erosion in federal and state positions by 1968, notably losing 15 net governorships and 437 state legislative seats.

The Nixon-Ford years, capped by the Watergate scandal and Ford’s pardon of Nixon, left an overall record that mimicked Eisenhower’s in some ways, though the GOP was left at an even lower ebb once Ford exited the White House in 1977. The shell-shocked Republicans were at rock bottom in the number of governorships, House seats, state legislative seats, and state legislative chambers.

Of all modern presidents, Reagan could boast the best record. In fact, he is the only president to achieve a gain in any category — a slight net addition of six Republican state legislators from 1980 to 1988. (There are almost 7,400 state legislators, so this is a very modest advance, but a unique one all the same.) Still, Reagan left the GOP in a substantially weaker minority status in both the U.S. Senate and House.

Democrats were delirious when Bill Clinton restored them to power in 1992, a euphoria that lasted until his unpopularity pushed both houses of Congress to Republican control two years later. Despite a marginal improvement in Democratic fortunes during the rest of Clinton’s administration, the party registered a net loss of 11 governorships, seven Senate seats, 45 House seats, 524 state legislative berths, and 18 state legislative chambers.

George W. Bush’s long-term losses were more modest. Nonetheless, with Bush’s sharp drop in job approval because of his handling of the Iraq War and Katrina (plus GOP congressional scandals), Democrats regained full control of Congress in 2006, and in 2008 secured outright majorities in 60 of the states’ 98 legislative chambers (excluding Nebraska’s nonpartisan unicameral body).

However, it is Barack Obama who holds the modern record for overall losses, at least through 2014. President Obama has presided over two devastating midterms for his party. From 2008 to the present, Democrats in the Obama era have racked up net forfeitures of 11 governorships, 13 Senate seats, 69 House seats, 913 state legislative seats, and 30 state legislative chambers. In the latter three categories, Obama has doubled (or more) the average two-term presidential loss from Truman through Bush.

It may well be that Obama can moderate these totals in 2016 by helping Democrats in a larger-turnout White House year. Still, Democrats would have to fare exceptionally well in the next round of sub-presidential races for Obama to escape the cellar.

The historical record is clear: A party surges when it elects a president, but goes into a roller-coaster decline shortly thereafter. Even if a party makes up significant ground in the president’s reelection campaign, by the end of the eight-year cycle, it is in worse shape, sometimes (as with Obama) much worse.

One wonders whether a party’s top elected officials would be quite so gung-ho about winning the White House if they focused on who is going to pay the piper.

Democrats and Republicans will give little attention to these grim numbers, of course, and as usual they will gear up and do whatever is necessary to take the big prize in 2016. Yet it should be a consolation to the eventual losers that at every other level of public office, they’ll almost certainly be better off in the not-too-distant future.

As for the eventual ’16 White House winners, well, for their own mental health, they’d better revise the old Bill Clinton campaign song (courtesy of Fleetwood Mac), and stop thinking about tomorrow. Because tomorrow will almost inevitably take a big bite out of their elective empire.