November blues for Republicans

By , Louis H. Bean is an economist and statistician.

The congressional elections are a good half year away and much can happen to alter or affect Republican and Democratic prospects. If you raise the usual questions as to the state of the economy at election time, the rate of inflation , the rate of unemployment, foreign affairs, the effect of more Republican than Democratic dollars in the campaign, and the degree of voter participation, you will get no certain answers, except on these two questions - the rate of unemployment and the number who will actually vote in November.

Regardless of the amount of money the two parties will spend to elect their candidates, voter turnout according to voting history is bound to be substantially below the number who voted in the 1980 presidential election. The rate of unemployment, it is now generally conceded, is not likely to come down by election time below its present figure of 9 percent or more.

The longtime historical record not generally noted about mid-term elections is that fewer voters participate than in the preceding presidential elections. The party, Republican or Democratic, that elects its presidential candidate invariably loses seats in the following congressional elections. The number of seats lost may be large or small, varying from 75 in 1922 following the election of Harding in 1920 to only 4 following the Nixon election in 1972. The record of nearly a hundred years is clear and consistent on this point. Since 1884 Republicans have won 14 presidential elections, all followed by Democratic gains in the following mid-term elections. Even in 1902, with Theodore Roosevelt in the White House, when the total number of congressional seats was increased, it was the Democrats who showed the greater gain (25) than the Republicans (9).

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Confirming the practically unbroken rule that the party which elects its presidential candidate loses seats in the following mid-term election is the record of Democratic congressional losses following the election of a Democratic president. The Democrats lost seats in all but one congressional election following the election of their presidential candidate. Thus they lost seats in 1886, 1894, 1914, 1918, 1938, 1942, 1946, 1950, 1962, 1966, and 1978. They did, however, gain 9 seats in 1934 in view of a further increase in unemployment following the 1932 depression which contributed to the election of Franklin Roosevelt.

In spite of this solid rule of congressional mid-term losses by the president's party, it is difficult to pick a particular number of seats the Republicans are likely to lose this year. Their heavy loss of 75 seats in 1922 may be associated with the postwar depression. Similarly the loss of 49 seats in 1930 may also be associated with the post-1929 business depression and the collapse of the stock market. The loss of 48 seats in 1958 may also reflect a substantial decline in business activity and high unemployment, as do the declines in business and unemployment in 1954 and 1970.

Thus congressional election history is on the side of the Democrats in this coming congressional election, and so is the record of unemployment. We now have an unemployment rate of over 9 percent exceeding the high rate in 1958 when Republicans lost 48 seats.

While the consistency in the record of Republican losses in mid-term congressional seats associated with the rate of unemployment does not point to a specific number of seats the Democrats may gain this year, the number will of course be determined by the effectiveness of campaign funds and campaign strategies.

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