Posted: March 26, 2010


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Barack Obama is going to have something to do with the legislative races here.

The president's political party typically loses congressional seats mid-way through the four-year term, and guess what? The effect carries into the Delaware General Assembly, too.

All politics is local, as the late Speaker Tip O'Neill said, but it is also evident the president puts a thumb on the scale.

"Mid-term elections are referendum campaigns not on the party out of power, but on the party in power. It's a referendum on Obama and the Democrats," said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster who spoke this week at a party dinner in Rehoboth Beach.

There were 12 mid-term elections in the last 50 years since 1960. The president's party lost congressional seats, both in the Senate and the House of Representatives, in all but two of them.

The exceptions were the 1998 election for the Democrats under Bill Clinton and the 2002 election for the Republicans under George Bush. There was a reason for it -- the president's popularity.

"When the president's approval rating is 60 percent or above, the party in power gains seats on average," Newhouse said.

The legislative returns actually track the president's approval even more closely than the congressional outcome.

Election President Senate House General Assembly Congress
1962 Democrat (Kennedy) -1D +4D +3 seats -1D
1966 Democrat (Johnson) -4D -18D -22 seats -51D
1970 Republican (Nixon) 0 -3R -3 seats -10R
1974 Republican (Ford) -3R -5R -8 seats -53R
1978 Democrat (Carter) 0 -5D -5 seats -18D
1982 Republican (Reagan) -1R -9R -10 seats -25R
1986 Republican (Reagan) 0 0 no change -13R
1990 Republican (Bush) -2R +1R -1 seat -9R
1994 Democrat (Clinton) -3D -4D -7 seats -60D
1998 Democrat (Clinton) +1D +1D +2 seats +5D
2002 Republican (Bush) 0 +3R +3 seats +10R
2006 Republican (Bush) 0 -3R -3 seats -36R

The president's party lost legislative seats in eight out of 12 mid-terms. It picked up seats in 1998 and 2002, just like the Congress, but it also gained seats in 1962 when John Kennedy's approval was above 60 percent and saw no change in 1986 when Ronald Reagan was riding high in the polls.

The chart depicting the trend is based on information from state election results and from the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The governor, by the way, turned out to be mostly a bystander. In the four elections the president and the governor came from different parties, the returns tracked the president.

The presidential effect is something to ponder as the 2010 legislative races take shape. Obama's party has a majority in both chambers with the Democrats controlling the Senate by 15-6 and the House by 24-17.

This is not necessarily to say the Democratic majorities are in jeopardy.

The Senate has been immune from the vagaries of politics. The Democrats have been in charge since a couple of Republicans connived in 1973 to give them a working majority. The Senate Democrats are more durable than mold.

The House majority shifts now and then, most recently in 2008 when the Republicans lost it for the first time since 1984. A party can lose seats without losing the majority, although in the cases it goes bad, it can go really bad.

The Democrats were booted into the House minority in 1966 when they lost 18 seats under Lyndon Johnson, and the Republicans fell into the basement of Legislative Hall in Dover with a nine-seat loss in 1982 under Reagan.

Obama has the approval of about half the voters, give or take, so it is nowhere near the magic number to put the Democrats at ease, at least not now.

Matt Denn, the Democratic lieutenant governor, tried to downplay the situation when he spoke recently at a Democratic meeting in Pike Creek Valley by suggesting the economic predicament could hurt either party.

"Anyone who thinks they have a safe seat in this election as an incumbent legislator is wrong," Denn said.

That would be incumbent spelled D-E-M-O-C-R-A-T.