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Despite the party's persistent troubles, in 1932 the Democratic New Deal coalition emerged. The party, long reliant on a Southern base, gained votes and seats outside the South, and gained a majority that persisted for some years. Although there was considerable change in where the party won votes, the relationship between presidential and House vote percentages remained remarkably stable from the 1920s through 1944. As indicated earlier in Figure 3.4, the correlation had fluctuated between .90 and .70 (excluding 1912) between 1900 and 1928. It was .81 in 1932 and 1936, and .83 in 1940 and 1944. This era is often described as one of realignment, which presumably means a significant shift in electoral alignments. Yet the correlation between voting for presidential and House candidates did not change. How does a party expand its base and bring in a significantly new electoral base while this association does not change?
Analyzing 1928–1932 Gains
The question facing Democrats in the 1920s was how to expand their base beyond the South, and to do so on a consistent basis. The issue within the party was whether to run presidential candidates who would appeal to northern urban constituencies and attract enduring support in those areas. Although in retrospect it appears clear which way the party should and would move, there was little clarity during the 1920s. The battle over what direction to take consumed the party during the 1920s, until the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929 gave the party electoral gains in 1930 and 1932 it had not been able to achieve before. The challenge then became how to retain the newly acquired support.
In the years following the 1896 election, the nation was dominated by Republicans. Democrats had to expand their electoral base to have a chance to be the majority party. To begin with presidential elections, over half of the nation's Electoral College votes came from the North, and Republicans won a very high percentage of them (Table 5.1). Roughly one-fourth came from western states, and Republicans also did well there. The dominance of Republicans put enormous pressure on Democrats to change their appeal and expand their electoral base.
As the table indicates, Democrats did very well in the South, winning an average of 67.6 percent of the popular vote and 90.4 percent of the Electoral College votes within that region. The party won only 14.2 percent of Electoral College votes within the North and 34.1 percent within the remainder of the nation. It was a party with its base in the South and with a record of only limited success outside that region. It was also a party regularly losing presidential elections.
As with any long-term change, there are several possible explanations of why the correlation between presidential and House results declined and then returned to a higher level. There is another possible alternative that is statistical in nature. A plausible statistical explanation is that the changes shown in Figures 8.3 and 8.4 may have changed the dispersion of presidential and House votes such that the resulting correlation declined. That is, the decline may just reflect trends in variable variance.
The technical explanation involves the consequences of change. For the first half of the last century, the differences in partisan support between regions were very large. The Democrat's dominance of the South and the high vote percentages for Democrats created considerable variance in presidential and House votes. A correlation is a calculation of the covariance of two variables with the variance of each variable affecting the results. The greater the covariance and the greater the variance of the variables involved, the greater the correlation. It is possible that the variance of one or both variables also might decline as partisan changes occur. As regional differences declined from the 1950s through the 1980s, the results for one or both offices might cluster more in the 40–60 percent range, resulting in reduced national variance for scores for the office. This decline in the standard deviation of presidential results up until 1980 (Figure 8.5) occurred, whereas the House standard deviation has not changed.
The significant changes in presidential–House election results have occurred within regions. The implications have been national in scope, but it is within regions that there were differential rates of change within House districts for presidential and House election results. The following examines these changes by region.
In tracking change within regions, it is important to note that as the changes of the 1960s began to unfold, regions began with different situations. The South witnessed the greatest change because it began as the most distinct region within the nation. In 1950 it was a region in which the minority party within the region had a very poor image. The Republican Party had little in the way of state organizations for recruiting and supporting candidates. The party had such a poor image that when the Republican national party organization made efforts to attract support within the region, it used names that did not identify the efforts as being associated with the party. In the remainder of the nation the Democrats were generally seen as being in the minority when change started, but their disadvantage was not as bad as that faced by Republicans in the South.
Explaining electoral change as a result of party pursuits begins with the factors that might prompt party candidates to seek change. The decision to pursue change is likely to be driven by the electoral math facing candidates or parties and by concerns with ideology and social trends. Further, there must be some substantial percentage of party members who support such efforts. It need not be a majority, but for a sustained effort to achieve change there must a substantial percentage.
Presidential Candidates: When parties begin campaigns they seek to win a majority. The “wing” of the party that faces the simplest problem is that of presidential candidates. A candidate either wins or loses, and if a campaign is to be run, the focus must be on what will produce a majority in the Electoral College. Presidential candidates invariably begin a campaign with an assessment of what base they can probably rely on and what voters they might be able to win. These calculations can be done with a short-term focus on just the upcoming election or with a long-term focus on pursuing an expanded or different electoral base. Our attention in politics is usually drawn to the short-term strategies of presidential candidates seeking to win the support of specific groups. The concern here is with the long-term and what would prompt candidates to seek to change an electoral base. The process of assessing political prospects may be the same, but the difference is whether the goal is just the next election or more enduring changes. Presidential candidates are very important in any process of change. They are the most visible representative of their party and the most capable of projecting an altered image to the electorate. Presidential candidates cannot change a party's electoral base alone, but they can play a major role.
In recent decades analyses of the relationship between presidential and House election results were largely set aside to examine the factors affecting House elections and why incumbents were increasingly safe. There are, however, fundamental problems with the premises underlying the focus on House elections in isolation and with the resulting neglect of the presidential–House election connection. One involves the relevant evidence about incumbents, and the other involves doubts about the candidate-centered framework that has dominated analyses.
First, with regard to the evidence, two matters are important. The empirical evidence about an increased incumbency effect does not indicate what is generally presumed. There is also accumulating evidence that the relationship between presidential–House results is gradually returning to its prior levels. It appears that something sustained and systematic is increasing this relationship in recent decades.
The 1930s changed the political landscape, bringing the Democratic Party majority status and a close alignment of presidential and House electoral bases. It also brought tensions within each party that would fester for many years. The within-party debates and assessments of what direction the Democratic Party should pursue were lengthy. The decision by factions within each party to seek different policies eventually led to winning new constituencies, with presidential candidates leading the way. These pursuits were fundamental in disconnecting the relationship between presidential and House results. The resulting disruption of this relationship was interpreted by many as the emergence of candidate-centered campaigns and politics by House members, but the separation of presidential and House results was really only a reflection of the lag of House results.
The concerns in this chapter are the tensions and disagreements within each party and how they prompted the changes that became evident in the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps the most important matter leading up to the 1960s was that each party was feeling pressures to deal with the issue of whether to seek to change its electoral base. Although the Democratic New Deal coalition is often seen as dominating American politics for more than 30 years, there were tensions within the party that eventually resulted in change. For Republicans the need to consider change was more obvious: The party was largely in the minority, and had to consider how to get out of that status.
The study of presidential and House elections developed slowly. The progression of analyses, in conjunction with the timing of major changes in American politics, combined to significantly affect what has become the focus of studies. The ability to examine presidential and House elections was limited for much of the first half of the 1900s because data were hard to acquire from individual states. Presidential results were being collected but only for states and counties. Lacking results by House districts, the early quantitative studies focused on aggregate-level results, either at the national or regional level. Apparently the first publication that gathered presidential and House results by House districts was that of Malcolm Moos, Politics, Presidents and Coattails, in 1952. He presented results for both offices by district for the years 1938–1950. That data set was incomplete because he could not get results for all states. For some states there were also no presidential results by House district in counties containing multiple districts.
By the mid-1950s data for all House districts were becoming more available, and subsequent studies focused on House elections over time. In 1957 Congressional Quarterly published an Almanac containing the first data on presidential and House elections by House district, covering the years 1952 and 1956. The availability of these data resulted in efforts to assess the relationship between presidential and House results, and soon there were numerous efforts to assess the extent of presidential coattails. The general conclusion was that the connection was declining.
The present is confusing because we do not really understand the past.
Our understandings of politics evolve. At one time – much of the first half of the 1900s
– it was widely understood that presidential and House election results were closely tied
together. The partisan votes for presidential and House candidates in House districts were very
similar, and we presumed that voting was primarily for a party and not individuals. Then in the
1960s the relationship between presidential and House results declined. By the 1970s a new
interpretation emerged about what was dominating elections and how the presidential–House
connection was being altered. The conclusion was that House elections were becoming dominated by
incumbency, elections were candidate-centered, and parties were of less relevance in voting choices.
House incumbents were becoming more immune to shifts in partisan presidential electoral support in
the nation. The conventional wisdom quickly became that we were witnessing a diminished capability
for elections to simultaneously register voter sentiment in the institutions of the presidency and
[The House elections of the 1960s represent] a set of electoral arrangements that is…quite
unresponsive to shifts in the preferences of voters. (1973)
Incumbents have become quite effectively insulated from the electoral effects, for example, of
adverse presidential landslides. As a result, a once-notable phenomenon, the so-called coattails
effect, has virtually been eliminated. (1975)
The incumbency advantage in House races has increased to such a level during the last decade that
the electoral outcomes for president and Congress have become virtually independent. (1983)
Voting in congressional elections has become detached from broad national currents reflecting
reactions to the president and national issues and problems. (1985)
No matter which party wins the White House each four years, presidential elections seem to have
little impact on the partisan balance in Congress. The discrepancy between presidential and
congressional election results is frequently attributed…to a decline in presidential
Presidential and congressional candidates were seeking to alter the geographical electoral bases of their parties. How successful were the parties in creating change? How did the process of change affect the relationship between presidential and House election results? To assess these questions, several analyses are relevant. Is there evidence of broad national changes in the geographical bases of support for the parties? Did the changes initiated in the 1960s persist? Did presidential and House elections change at the same rates, or did they proceed at different rates and create a separation of results? This chapter deals largely with national results. Changes within regions are dealt with in the next chapter.
Shifting Geographical Bases
The first issue is the extent of change in geographical electoral bases. Table 8.1 indicates the broad changes in presidential and House electoral bases by 1972. This repeats a table presented earlier as an introduction to the issue of national changes. The baseline is 1940 because it is after the initial surge in support for Democrats in 1932 and 1936 had subsided. The relative levels of partisan support for the parties within states in 1940 was similar to 1900 so the grouping of states provides a baseline for comparison with 1972, the year Richard Nixon sought to create a new coalition.
Over the last several decades an interpretation of American elections has dominated that suggests they do not result in a coherent expression of the differing views of voters in both presidential and House elections. To briefly repeat matters reviewed earlier, a series of changes were seen as altering elections. Voters were less attached to parties. House candidates were presumed to be able to present themselves separately from their party, allowing them to boost their vote percentages and buffer their vote swings from presidential fluctuations. The result of greater incumbent autonomy from partisan swings was that voters could reject the policies of one party, but that swing may well not produce changes in who holds seats and which party controls government. There would be less likelihood of unified control of government, resulting in more stalemates and less responsiveness to shifts in public opinion.
These conclusions are all derived from the candidate-centered interpretation of American elections that emerged in the 1970s. That framework has become an assertion without any specific predictions that might allow us to refute it. Without any specific expectations to compare to actual events it becomes asserted again and again, and there is little consideration of alternative interpretations.
By the 1980s presidential and House results were beginning to come together. The correlation between results was low during the 1960s and 1970s, but in 1980 the association began to increase, and by 2008 it was close to the level that prevailed in the early 1900s. Why and how did that
happen? If results were converging, what was happening to incumbents?
The simple answer as to why the presidential–House correlation increased is that the number of split-district outcomes declined. A split district is one in which the presidential and House winners differ. The difference that creates this split could be small. It is possible that a
presidential candidate might lose a district with 49 percent and the House candidate could win the district with 51 percent of the vote, creating a difference of two percentage points.
Although the difference might be small, over the last century split-outcome districts have averaged much larger deviations of House results from presidential results than for non-split districts. Figure 10.1 indicates the average absolute value deviation of House results from presidential results for split and non-split districts. From 1900 through 1916 the differences between the two types of districts were minimal. Beginning in 1920 and continuing through 1988 the average deviation increased significantly, rising from somewhat over 10 to the high 20s. Then in 1992 it declined, and has fluctuated between 15 and 20 since then. For non-split districts the deviations of House results from presidential results has been relatively constant and much lower.
In the early 1900s presidential and House election results were highly correlated. When a Republican presidential candidate did well within a district, the Republican House candidate also did well. When a presidential candidate did poorly, the House candidate of the same party also did poorly. There was a consistency of partisan electoral expressions across House districts. The result was that a president generally came into office with his party holding a majority in the House. The presumption was that the electorate was reacting primarily to parties. Divided partisan control of institutions was not the norm. If the electorate shifted significantly toward one party, it carried that party to power in the presidency and the House.
That connection persisted even when the critical realignment of 1932 occurred. That election is viewed as one that fundamentally changed electoral alignments; however, the major change involved relatively uniform movements to the Democrats in districts where the party had been weak. A shift toward Democrat Franklin Roosevelt for president was accompanied by a shift toward the Democratic House candidate, regardless if it was an incumbent or a candidate for an open seat. The shift in voter sentiment in the presidential race also occurred in House elections, and the association between the two sets of results remained high. For the first half of the century the correlation between presidential and House election results was consistently .8 or higher. The percentage of House districts with split-outcomes (different parties winning the presidential and House vote within a district) rarely reached 20 percent.