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Friday, July 22, 2011

The House Vote and the Presidential Vote

At The American, Michael Barone writes:

Since the middle 1990s, the popular vote for the House of Representatives has become a good proxy for the standing of the nation’s two major parties. This was not the case for many years, in large part because Democratic House candidates in the South stood for different issues than their party’s national nominees and tended to run far ahead of Democratic presidential candidates. But during Bill Clinton’s presidency and afterward, Democratic presidential candidates became more successful nationally than they had been in most of the 1970s and 1980s, even as Republicans started running much better than they had in House districts in the South.

In 1992, for the first time since Reconstruction, the Republican percentage of the House vote in the South, defined as the 11 Confederate states plus West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma, was (slightly) higher than in the North; in 1994, Republicans carried the House popular vote in the South, as they have ever since, in years when they carried the House popular vote in the North only twice (in 1994 and 2002).

So it is fair to say that the popular vote for the House and the president have converged. ...

The contrast is striking: from 1996 through 2008 there is only a 1% difference between the Democratic percentages for president and the House; between 1952 and 1992, with the single exception of 1964, when Lyndon Johnson ran ahead of Democratic congressional candidates, Democratic House candidates’ percentage ranged from 5% to 14% higher than Democrats’ percentages for president.

The question then suggests itself: to what extent can we consider the popular vote for the House in off-year elections as a prediction of the presidential vote in the next election? The answer appears to be: pretty good.


Obviously, the three most recent examples portend an unhappy 2012 for President Obama and the Democrats, while the 1994-1996 example is a precedent for an incumbent Democratic president overcoming a “thumping” (George W. Bush’s term) in the off-year and winning reelection by a nontrivial margin. What I think these numbers suggest is that, absent a considerable redefinition by the incumbent president, he or his party’s nominee is likely to run just about as well (or poorly) in the next presidential election as his party’s House candidates did in the most recent off-year elections.