A Democratic swing, not an Obama swing

There’s an idea going around that the Democrats turned in a disappointing performance in Congressional races this year. For example, a politically-minded friend of mine of the liberal persuasion wrote: “The election was good news, although the Democrats did not do quite as well in the Senate and House as I expected. Obama did not have very long coattails–given how anti-Republican Americans are these days.”

Some of the pros say this too; for example, Charlie Cook writes, “given the strength of the top of the ticket nationally, one might have thought that the victory would have been more vertically integrated. . . . what happened down-ballot was not proportional to what happened at the top.”

And Mickey Kaus attributes this to moderate ticket-splitters who, expecting that Obama would win, decided to support Republicans in Congress: “swing voters compensated for the bold, hopeful risk they took on Obama (including for overcoming any race prejudice) by gravitating back toward Republicans in their local Senate and House races.”

The only trouble with this theory is that it’s not supported by the data. Obama won 53% of the two-party vote, congressional Democrats averaged 56%. The average swing of 5.7% from Democratic congressional candidates in 2004 to Dems in 2008 was actually greater than the popular vote swing of 4.5% from Kerry to Obama.

Let’s look at what happened state by state. Here I’m plotting the swing in average district vote in each state, comparing the congressional elections of 2004 to those of 2008, ordering the states by Kerry’s share in 2004:


The horizontal blue line shows the average swing of 5.7%. The Democrats gained in nearly every state, with, unsurprisingly, some big swings in some of the small states that have only one or two congressional districts.

Now let’s compare this to the state-by-state swing in the presidential vote:


Obama beat Kerry nearly everywhere, fairly uniformly with only a few exceptions–we knew that–but my point here is that Obama’s swings weren’t quite as large, on average, as the state congressional delegations’.

If you want, you can look at both swings at once:


In the states in the upper left of this graph, the Democrats improved more in the congressional than in the presidential vote; the states in the lower right are those where the Obama-Kerry swing was greater than the Democrats’ swing in House races.

There are a lot more states in the upper left than in the lower right. Each state has its own story–for example, I wouldn’t attribute Don Young’s squeaker in Alaska to Barack Obama’s coattails–but given the graphs above, I think it’s hard to make the case that, overall, the voters were saying No to the Democrats in Congress. On the contrary, congressional Democrats averaged 56% of the vote–their best showing since 1976 (and far more than the Republicans’ 52% in 1994).

Here’s the story in a map:


For some historical perspective, here are the Democrats’ two-party vote share in presidential elections and average two-party vote in congressional elections since 1946:


Presidential voting has been much more volatile than congressional voting (incumbency and all that). This makes the Democrats’ 5.7-point gain over two elections even more impressive.


I think Charlie Cook was closer to the mark when he wrote, “The political environment and momentum that Democrats seemed to have in recent months may have led to an unrealistic set of expectations. In this, perhaps we pundits share some blame.” I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to consider Obama’s 53% “enormously impressive” and congressional Democrats’ 56% a disappointment.

The data demolish the idea that voters in 2008 were pulling the lever for Barack but not for the Dems overall (not for “Nancy Pelosi,” if you will).


1. I thank John Kastellec and Jared Lander for gathering the data and sharing their thoughts.

2. I’m counting uncontested House candidates at 75% of the vote (see our earlier article for discussion of this and similar technical issues).

3. We use average district vote rather than total vote because congressional vote totals vary a lot, and we’re trying to assess national public opinion (as judged, for example, in Kaus’s quote above).

4. The Democrats won resoundingly; this means that the voters preferred them to the alternative; it does not necessarily mean the voters want the specific policies proposed by the Democrats. Recall the Democrats’ surprising lack of popular success after 1976 and the Republicans’ struggles after their 1994 sweep.

5. I’m talking about public opinion here, not campaign strategy. I’m sure that Democratic leaders were disappointed in their party’s performance in key congressional races, especially given their immense financial resources this year. At the level of public opinion, though, the Democrats in Congress outperformed Obama overall and in 38 states–and their swing beat Obama’s overall and in 32 states–so I think you’d be hard pressed to argue that the voters were balancing toward the Republicans in congressional voting. This is not to say that the voters have given the Democrats a blank check, but it really was a Democratic swing, not an Obama swing.

2 thoughts on “A Democratic swing, not an Obama swing

  1. The trouble with the phrase "X is surprisingly small, given factor Y" is that it's as true as you want it to be. No matter how well the Dmeocrats do, someone can always say without much fear of contradiction that they're surprised the Democrats aren't doing better, given the unpopularity of the Republicans.

    I've heard exactly the same thing from other sources, and I think it's the new conventional wisdom.

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