Posted: Dec. 12, 2013


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

In politics, there is the joy of the presidential election followed by the agony of the mid-terms.

It is well-known that the president's party almost always gets hammered by the voters in the election midway through the four-year term.

Barack Obama and the Democrats lost an astounding 69 seats in the Senate and House of Representatives in 2010, the worst showing for the presidential party since 1938, when Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats lost 77 seats.

The only thing that seems to prevent the backwash, although not every time, is if the president's approval rating is at least 60 percent. It worked for Bill Clinton in 1998, when the Democrats picked up five seats, and for the second George Bush in 2002, when the Republicans added 10 seats.

It was nevertheless not enough to save FDR, whose approval was at 60 percent in 1938, not to mention he still had another two winning presidential elections in him.

What is less well-known is that the legislative races here in Delaware also tracked with the president in the mid-term elections, or at least they did.

This should not really be a surprise, not with the state's history as a presidential bellwether in the second half of the 20th Century, when it voted for the winner in every election from 1952 until it got a little confusing in 2000 and nobody was sure for a while who won, Bush or Al Gore.

In the mid-terms from 1962 through 2006, what happened to the president also happened at home, as shown by the records compiled by the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and state election returns.

Election President Party October job approval Legislative seats Congressional seats
1962 Kennedy D 61% +3 -1
1966 Johnson D 44% -22 -51
1970 Nixon R 58% -3 -10
1974 Nixon/Ford R 53% -8 -53
1978 Carter D 49% -5 -18
1982 Reagan R 42% -10 -25
1986 Reagan R 64% no change -13
1990 Bush I R 57% -1 -9
1994 Clinton D 48% -7 -60
1998 Clinton D 65% +2 +5
2002 Bush II R 67% +3 +10
2006 Bush II R 37% -3 -36
2010 Obama D 45% +1 -69

Then along came Obama's first mid-term election in 2010, and while the Democrats were getting crushed across the country in a tea party wave of anti-government, anti-tax and anti-incumbent furor, it was the Republicans who were pummeled here with Christine O'Donnell running for the Senate atop their ticket.

The "presidential effect" was replaced by a "Moses effect," as O'Donnell parted the Republican red sea, and it rolled around Delaware and left it a little island of Democratic blue.

Instead of losing legislative ground here, the Democrats went up by one seat.

What stands out in the 2010 legislative returns, however, is that five Democratic candidates for state representative won their races by roughly 300 to 400 votes, translating to no more than 55 percent of the vote and all the way down to barely 50 percent.

They were: Mike Barbieri, Brad Bennett, Debra Heffernan, Rebecca Walker and Dennis E. Williams.

Tom Ross, who was the Republican state chair at the time, argues that the nationwide Republican wave would have reached here and made losers of some or all of those Democratic winners, if the Republican ticket had been led by Mike Castle for senator, instead of O'Donnell.

"Unfortunately, we nominated a candidate that was not palatable to the vast majority of Delawareans. It did a lot to motivate Democrats to vote, and at the same time, it did an awful lot to keep some Republican voters at home," Ross said.

Ross could be right, not that there is any way to ever know. If the Republicans were able to win even two of those representative seats, it would have extended the trend that up until then had the legislative races tracking with the president in the mid-terms.

The Delaware Republicans have been in a political freefall since 2010. With another mid-term election coming in 2014 and Obama's popularity in the danger zone, at least for now, they ought to have a chance to right themselves, but who knows?

The next election will show whether the "presidential effect" returns or the "Moses effect" goes on.