Monday, September 30, 2013

Did the Democrats gain in 1996 due to the government shutdown?

The conventional wisdom is that the government shutdown in 1995-96 led to a Republicans defeat in 1996. Republican Presidential candidate Bob Dole did lose by 8.5 points. It was an improvement over Clinton’s 1992 margin. It’s possible that the shutdown did help Bill Clinton. Of course the 1996 Presidential results hinge on these two candidates and there are a great many things they did that could lead to those results.

The House and Senate elections had a lot more candidates. So any individual decision by any one candidate would have little impact on the actual results. This shutdown occurred about 10 months before a sitting President would stand for re-election. This shutdown, if it happens, will occur more than 3 years before two candidates who might have no involvement with this shutdown match up. It’s unlikely to have any impact.

The bigger question is what impact would this have on the 2014 House and Senate elections. Did the 1995-96 shutdown lead to disaster for the Republicans in 1996?


The Senate is easy. The GOP had 19 seats up for re-election, while the Democrats had 15. Republicans won 21 seats to the Democrats 13. This is a bit unusual, since the party with more seats at risk loses seats. Especially when that party loses the White House. So clearly Republicans weren’t hurt there.

Nineteen ninety four was a historic wave. Republicans picked up 54 seats in the election and then another 5 when Democratic congressmen switched parties. They netted a 60th seat when Tom Campbell won a Northern California Democratic district in a special election.

When a party picks up a big number of seats in one election, then next election is almost always a correcting election where many of the seats bounce back to the other party. This is especially true when the out party wins seats in a mid-term but doesn’t win the Presidential election two years later. With Clinton winning re-election Democrats might’ve expected to take back at least 30-40 seats.

In 1992, Democrats beat Republicans in the House vote 48.5 million to 44.0 million. The margin was similar to the 44.9 million to 39.1 million one that Bill Clinton enjoyed over George H.W. Bush.

In 1996, Bill Clinton’s win increased from 5.6 million to 8.2 million, 47.4 million to 39.2 million. Instead of increasing their 1992 margin or vote total congressional Democrats won the vote narrowly 43.4 million to 43.1 million.

Overall, Democrats picked up 19 Republican seats and the GOP picked up 10 Democratic seats. Democratic pick-ups included 3 seats in California, 2 in Massachusetts, and seats in Connecticut, New Jersey, Maine, and New York. All told 17 of the 19 seats were in states Bill Clinton won. There were a lot of left leaning seats. They ended up with 207 seats. Democrats did win a majority of the House popular and didn’t win a majority. On the other hand, Bill Clinton’s coat tails should’ve resulted in them winning more votes, perhaps enough to win a majority.

Especially if they benefitted from Republicans shutting down government.

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