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Were the Clintons Particularly Bad for the Democrats?

At The Corner, Mark Steyn writes that the Clintons were bad for the Democratic Party:

The Clintons' leadership of the Democratic Party was great for the Clintons, terrible for the Democratic Party: They lost the House, they lost the Senate, they lost state legislatures and governors' mansions, and in the end Clinton couldn't even bequeath the White House to his Vice-President in a time of peace and prosperity.

In a 2006 Yale Law Journal article Steve Calabresi and I presented data showing that losing power, even state governorships, as a presidential term progresses is common, not an exception. Essentially, we believe that a President and his party are a lightning rod for everything that goes wrong.

Our article can be downloaded at the bottom of this SSRN page. Particularly relevant are Figures 1 and 2 on page 2617 showing governorships by party since 1936.

UPDATE: I was amused by one of the comments below. Justin says that he knew this in high school. His comment brings to mind my observation of the three possible responses to workshop papers at the Univ. of Chicago Law & Economics Workshop in the early 1990s: (1) it's wrong; (2) it's trivial; or (3) it's already been done (usually coupled with the claim that the critic had already done it himself).

If Justin really knew in high school that the President's party lost governorships, he should have written it up for the political science literature, because we didn't find any political scientist who had shown this except in limited situations or any that pointed out that the backlash against the President in the states was stronger than the Presidential coattail effect. Perhaps we missed something (the field is huge), but some prominent scholars we consulted didn't mention anything directly on point. Indeed, one suggested that we do a version of our findings for a poli-sci journal.

We wrote in our Yale LJ article:

As James Campbell nicely documents, there is a backlash against the President's party in the midterm elections for seats in state legislatures. Campbell shows that in state legislative races in presidential election years, the winning President's party benefits from his coattails, but in midterm elections the President's party suffers losses in state legislative races that approximately cancel out the gains from his coattails.

Further, in an article published thirty-five years ago, Stephen Turett analyzed incumbent governors' races in 1900-1969, noticing that incumbent governors were more likely to be reelected in midterm elections if the President was of the opposing party. Turett limited his analysis of this midterm effect to incumbent governors running for re-election and interpreted it as merely offsetting the coattail effect in presidential election years.

When one adds all gubernatorial races to the analysis, as we do in Figures 1 and 2, the backlash against the President's party in state races during a President's term is actually stronger overall than the coattail effect in the presidential election year. To be more specific, we find that four years after a party wins a presidential election, it holds on average three fewer statehouses than it had before it won the presidential election. Perversely, winning the presidency seems to lead very shortly to losing power in the states.

Since 1932 there have been eight changes of party control of the White House (1933, 1953, 1961, 1969, 1977, 1981, 1993, and 2001). In every instance but one, the party that seized the White House held more governorships in the year before it took office than in the subsequent year it lost the presidential election. The only exception is that in 1980, Republicans held four fewer governorships than they held in 1992, immediately before the Republicans were voted out of the White House. Similarly, of the eleven Presidents since 1933, every one except two, Kennedy and Reagan, left office with fewer governorships than his party had before he took office, and Kennedy served less than three years.

In addition, if people generally understood that the blacklash / lightning rod effect is stronger than the coattail effect, I doubt that so many states would have moved their elections away from the Presidential election years in an apparently unsuccessful attempt to reduce the effect of Presidential elections on state elections for governorships.

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