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Presidents haunt off-year elections

By Staff | Oct 15, 2010

While the pundits on television are spending their time talking about the political environment in this nonpresidential election, they are neglecting the historical weather vanes that would give some direction to their speculations. With rare exceptions, the party of the sitting president loses congressional and legislative seats in nonpresidential election years.

Regardless of which party is in power, the average loss of seats in the U. S. House of Representatives is 22 seats and the average loss in the Senate is 3.3 seats. In this November’s election, the Republicans will win these seats as a matter of historical fact.

While these losses are caused by biennial disenchantment with presidents, additional losses can occur if the contemporary political environment is sour. That will give additional seats to the Republicans in November maybe as many as 20 more in the House and three in the Senate, enough to give Republicans control of the House.

Even though the nonpresidential shift occurs as a result of national politics, it strikes state executive and legislative races as well. In the 13 North Dakota nonpresidential elections since 1958, the out-party gained an average of 5.7 senate seats and 13 house seats.

To relate these out-party gains to the 2010 legislative elections, we need to look at what Republicans lost in the last nonpresidential election – 2006 when a Republican was in the White House. Having a Republican president cost North Dakota Republicans six seats in each of the two chambers in the legislature.

Here are some figures that explain these losses. In most election years, Republican legislative candidates get around 55 per cent of the vote while Democratic candidates tally 43-44 per cent. In 2006, Republican legislative candidates received only 50 per cent of the vote while Democrats got 49. With this significant shift, Republicans were certain to lose seats.

Looking at the upcoming election with a Democratic president, Democrats should expect to lose most, if not all, of the seats they gained in the 2006 elections. And since the political climate is more adverse for Democrats in 2010 than it was for Republicans in 2006, common sense says that Democrats will lose more than they gained.

The same analysis can be applied to the races for our state offices below Congress. In recent elections, Republicans running for state offices have been getting around 60 per cent of the vote. However, in 2006 they averaged only 54 per cent. In 2010, it is very likely that we will see a strong resurgence, with the Republican state candidates back averaging 60 per cent.

The primary reason for this nonpresidential year punishment of the party in power is the decline in voter turnout by 15 to 20 percent, most of whom supported the successful presidential candidate. Initial polling indicates that among the nonvoters in November will be women, younger voters, blacks and Hispanics. These are the folks who elected Obama and gave gains to Democrats across the board.

What can aspiring politicians learn from all of this? If they are planning to run for office, they should choose an off-year when the other party controls the presidency.

Omdahl is a UND professor emeritus in political science and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

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