If the Democrats lose big in the fall will that mean Obama is unlikely to get re-elected? If they don’t does it mean that he will? The answer to both is no. The last 12 Presidents to get re-elected lost an average of 33 House seats in the previous election. This includes massive losses of 61, 77, 72, and 54 seats. It also includes gains of 19 and 8 and losses of 4, 12, and 18. So he could win no matter how many seats he loses.
The sample size for losing re-election is only four Presidents, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush. The circumstances of two of Hoover and Ford are unique. Hoover lost in the middle of a worldwide depression while Ford was running two years after his predecessor resigned. It’s fairly safe to say we won’t be in a 1930s depression and Obama isn’t going to resign. It’s worth noting that Hoover lost 52 seats two years prior and Ford lost 48, while Carter lost 15 and Bush lost 8.
This year’s election won’t tell us whether Obama will win in two years. But if he’s re-elected his party will likely pick up seats. In the last 11 re-election wins the President’s party has picked up seats 10 times and lost 2 in the other election. The gains haven’t been significant, however. Only Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson won more than 20 seats. When Hoover lost the Republicans lost 101 seats, but when Ford lost they lost only 1. Carter lost 35 seats, but the Republicans gained 9 when Bush lost. So there’s no strong indicator how the Democrats will do if Obama loses, although once again it appears unlikely they’ll pick up a lot of seats.
While this year’s gain and losses can’t predict Obama’s re-election they can predict the House gains or losses in 2012. In most cases a surge is followed by a similar decline. This year is a little different since the Democrats have picked up 52 seats over the last two elections. In 1974, however, the Democrats picked up 48 Republican seats and an additional 1 in 1976. The Republicans only picked up 15 seats in 1978 and then picked up 34 in 1980. After four elections the net pick-up was 0.
If the Republicans pick-up 20 seats this year I’d predict a strong 2012. If they pick up 50 I’d predict that 2012 will have only a handful going one way or the other. If they pick up 80 you’ll likely see the Democrats do well in 2012.