If current indicators are correct, Obama faces a steep uphill climb this November. The question then becomes, does the road within his own party stay so steep? His two Democratic predecessors faced the same midterm challenge. Their early electoral travails, and more importantly, their party’s differing reactions to them, provide instructive lessons for today’s Democrats.
Many on the Right have already worn out the description of the current Administration as Carter’s second coming. However in one aspect, it may be very apt. If current and recent trends – both in the polls and at the polls – continue, midterm losses for the president’s party are a surety.
In fact, the same midterm losses befell Clinton as well. If a third repetition is already out of Democrats’ control, all that remains within their control is their response to it. Here, the diametrically different Democratic reactions to the Carter and Clinton precedents present two very discordant options.
In the 1978 midterm election, Democrats lost 15 House seats and 3 Senate seats. Even with this setback, Democrats still controlled overwhelming majorities (277 House seats and 58 Senate seats). Yet in 1980, Carter was challenged for the presidential nomination by Senator Kennedy.
Although Carter ultimately prevailed, he emerged severely weakened. November’s results were devastating. Democrats lost 34 House seats and control of the Senate with a 12-seat loss.
Fourteen years later, midterm losses cost Democrats control of Congress – losing 58 House seats and 11 Senate seats. Yet despite these crushing midterm losses, Clinton was not challenged for renomination. Clinton went on to win reelection and Democrats gained 8 House seats and lost just one Senate seat – a far cry from the Carter’s outcome.
The reasons for these very different results lies in another striking similarity that these Democratic presidencies share: control of a key electoral group. In the case of Carter and Clinton, it was their southern strength.
In 1972, Democrats failed to win any Southern states (and only MN and DC overall). In 1976, with Georgia governor Jimmy Carter atop the ticket, Democrats virtually swept the South – losing only VA – winning 14 states and 143 electoral votes. Carter’s victory margin was just 2% in the popular vote and 57 electoral votes. Absent Carter’s southern dominance, Gerald Ford wins the presidency.