The ’84 Election in Perspective

Those who want a clue to help them follow the political battles of the new Congress should keep one key concept in mind: elections. Democracies define themselves by free, contested elections, of course, and the right of citizens to pick our leaders distinguishes this regime from its dangerous rivals. Our national elections identify goals and priorities; they are the way we as a people set a course for the future.

In a less exalted sense, elections are also central to our political system because they are never far from the minds of those who contest them. More so than the academics who study them and the newscasters who report them, practicing politicians need to understand past elections as they prepare for the future. The 1986 congressional elections may be far from the minds of voters weary from the just-concluded presidential campaign. But for members of Congress and would-be challengers, the next campaigns have already begun. Two very important politicians who will not even be running in 1986—Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House—can also be expected to exhibit a healthy interest in these contests.

One need not go back very far in American history to see the difference the interpretation of an election outcome makes in our politics. The first two years of the Reagan Administration provide evidence aplenty. With 34 new seats in the House and Republican control of the Senate for the first time in 34 years, the Reagan Administration happily found itself on the winning side of many important congressional tallies. From the depths of political science textbooks, the concept of party realignment came to enjoy new life on TV talk shows and in mass-circulation newsweeklies. Republicans, not surprisingly, talked of taking control of the House in 1982, and many people—many Democrats—believed them. In light of the actual results it is all too easy to dismiss this as partisan boasting, but in 1981, when Democratic congressmen and Senators saw the nameplates of former colleagues being removed from office doors in the Capitol, they quietly said to themselves “that could have been me.” The perception that the 1982 election would be like 1980 explains a good deal of the behavior of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress during the extended Reagan honeymoon.

In fact, realignment did not come in 1982, and by winning back 26 House seats the Democrats ended all serious talk of an imminent Republican takeover. For 1983 and most of 1984, Democrats acted as if they had little to fear from President Reagan, and by the time it became apparent that Mondale was doing so poorly that he endangered many on the bottom of his ticket, there was little congressional business left to be affected. In similar fashion, the results from 1984 and the interpretation of those results will have a major impact on the conduct of business in the 99th Congress. As it stands now, the mood on Capitol Hill can be summarized as follows: there is really not much that Reagan can do for the Republicans or do to the Democrats.

The House Results

On the surface, the 1984 presidential election appears simple. Reagan won in a landslide and drew support across the entire country and from nearly every sub-group of the population. Since the pollsters had been predicting a huge victory throughout the campaign, the only real drama on election night was whether Reagan would carry all fifty states. But the modest Republican pick-up of 14 House seats, combined with their loss of two, seats in the Senate, led many to see the election as a personal victory for a likeable incumbent fortunate to run in a time of peace and prosperity. Analysts said the electorate was actually closer to Mondale on the issues, and complained that Reagan bluffed his way through the election by running a “feel-good” campaign with no real substance. While the voters gave Reagan four more years, the argument goes, they elected a more liberal Congress to keep the president in check.

To anyone who knows anything about congressional elections, this last point in particular is hard to accept. The congressional ballot is not a correction to the presidential ballot; it is a separate decision. Most frequently it gives voters an opportunity to choose between two candidates about whom they know very little. In the case of Southern voters, splitting the vote between parties at the presidential and congressional levels is often a complimentary, not contradictory, action, because Southern Democratic congressional candidates are often closer to Republican presidential nominees than to the standard-bearers of their own party. Nonetheless, the practical effect of the congressional outcome may work to frustrate the president, whether the voters intended this or not.

The Republican gain of 14 House seats needs to be put in some perspective. Although all 435 members are elected every two years, only a small percentage of the seats actually involve close races. House incumbents have learned that being in office offers members many chances to assist constituents in need and to claim credit for popular federal projects in their districts. Combined with the advantage in name recognition (partly a result of frequent congressional mailings) and the ability to raise campaign funds, it may not be so surprising that about 95% of the House incumbents who run for reelection win. Most, in fact, win easily. In 1984, 320 incumbents were reelected with 60% of the vote or more; another 45 won with 55-60%. Only 29 incumbents (and 24 of these were Democrats) won with less than 55%, and only 16 House members (13 Democrats, 3 Republicans) were defeated.

This is not to say that incumbents do not worry about reelection—they do worry, all the time. But their concerns compel them to reduce their own political risks by detaching themselves from national political events and issues. Instead, members seek to ingratiate themselves with constituents by careful attention to casework and frequent visits back home. The opportunities for a president to move such a Congress by direct appeals to the people are limited. Reagan did this successfully in 1981; it is doubtful it will work in 1985. The president now faces a House with 182 Republican and 253 Democratic members. While roughly 40 “boll weevil” Southern Democrats often vote with the Republicans on economic and foreign policy issues, Republicans themselves will need an extraordinary degree of party unity to reestablish the conservative coalition of 1981. When one recalls that a number of the new Republican seats come at the expense of conservative Southern Democrats (for example in Texas and North Carolina), perhaps the greatest source of comfort for the president are the 21 Republican freshmen who received campaign contributions from Reagan’s own pre-presidential PAC, Citizens for the Republic. He will need their support and their votes.

The Senate Results

Reelection rates are lower in the Senate than in the House. Senators enjoy the benefits of incumbency, to be sure, but the prestige of the higher chamber attracts more serious challengers—often governors or House members already well-known in the state. Six-year terms mean that Senators often run for reelection in a political climate quite different from the one in which they were elected. Still. in 1984, 18 Senate incumbents won with 60% or more; another 4 won with 55-60%. Only three won more narrow victories, and only three—Warren Huddleston (Kentucky), Charles Percy (Illinois), and Roger Jespen (Iowa)—lost.

The Republicans went into the election defending 19 of the. 33 seats being contested. That they were able to limit their net losses to two seats in a year when Democrats were predicting regaining control of the Senate shows that Reagan’s coattails had some impact. The senior Senator from North Carolina, Jesse Helms, for one, must be grateful that his reelection coincided with that of the popular White House incumbent. Since a number of other Republican incumbents got stronger as the summer wore on, one can make the argument that they owe something to their president. The problem is, however, while those Reagan helped may be grateful, those he can’t help are worried.

The 1986 Elections

From Abraham Lincoln to Ronald Reagan, with one significant exception, every American president has suffered losses by his party in the midterm congressional elections. Only Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 saw his party’s strength in the. House increase, and those increases convinced political scientists that a major party realignment had taken place. (For the numbers, see Vital Statistics on Congress, 1984-5 Edition, American Enterprise Institute, 1984.) Crueler still, second term losses are generally greater than those in the first term. In other words, Republican losses in the neighborhood of 20-25 House seats will be seen as good news in 1986. While Democratic headhunters use this argument to recruit strong challengers, prudent Republicans considering a run for Congress must ask themselves whether it would be better to wait until the next presidential election year of 1988.

Because 1980 was a banner year for Senate Republicans, they will have to defend many more seats than the Democrats in 1986 (22 to 12). Among the Republican Senators up for reelection are a number who won by very narrow margins in 1980 and who will be sure to have strong opposition, such as John East (NC), Alfonse D’Amato (NY) and Jeremiah Denton (AL). The Democrats have potentially weak incumbents in Gary Hart (CO) and perhaps Patrick Leahy (VT), and one announced retirement so far (Thomas Eagleton of Missouri), but the other nine Democrats who won by comfortable margins in the Reagan landslide year of 1980 should do as well or better this time. The point is that in 1985-6, Republicans in both Houses may need to distance themselves from their own .president in self-defense. Democrats, for their part, will highlight their differences with the Republicans as they expect the president’s popularity to decline. While the first two years of the second term will be difficult for the Administration, the last two could be sheer misery.

1988 and Beyond

There is a great irony in all of this. Despite the fact that the Republicans will probably suffer significant congressional losses in 1986, the long term prospects for the party look much better. Reagan’s extraordinary victory obscured the fact that the Republican presidential victories are now becoming the norm. A bloc of 23 states, with a total of 202 electoral votes, has voted Republican in five out of the last five presidential elections. Voters in these state picked Nixon over Humphrey and McGovern, Ford over Carter, and Reagan over Carter and Mondale. While no one would say that each of these states will forever give its votes to Republican candidates, the party does have a solid base to begin its quest for the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. The Democrats clearly have no such base.

If Democrats do so well in congressional elections, why can’t they win presidential elections? The most convincing analysis I have heard comes from polling expert William Schneider, who argues that the national leadership of the Democratic Party is simply too liberal for rank and file Democrats, especially in the West and the South. Voters here are attracted to the Democrats because of the party’s tradition of economic populism, but are put off by the liberal stance on issues such as abortion, gay rights, affirmative action and comparable worth. Democratic House and Senate candidates often find it necessary to run away from their national party, and many of them are quite successful doing so.

If Schneider is correct, and I believe he is, the prospects that Democrats at the national level will do something about it in the next few years are slim: It would require that the party both recognize the problem and agree on a solution, Back in July, Walter Mondale promised his rivals Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson that the party would create a Fairness Commission to study once again the presidential nomination process. The party activists who are most likely to constitute such a commission simply cannot be expected to back down from the concessions they have won from party regulars over the last sixteen years. Labor leaders, feminists, Jesse Jackson, and the issue activists have too much at stake to settle for a reduced role in the nominating process “for the good of the party.”

Inside Congress

The major issue facing this Congress, nearly everyone agrees, is the federal budget deficit. The politically significant factor about deficit politics in 1985 is the severe disagreement among’ all the key players as to what should be done.

If Reagan adheres to his campaign promise not to raise taxes, while pushing for further cuts in non-military spending, he must hope that further economic growth will ultimately bring the budget into balance. To encourage such growth, the Administration put forth a tax-simplification plan in November of 1984 which would have reduced both tax rates and the number of tax brackets, while eliminating several current tax deductions. The plan was immediately challenged by the new Senate majority leader Bob Dole, (R-KS), who had long discounted the ability of economic growth alone to contain the deficits. Dole’s successor as chairman of the Finance Committee—Bob Packwood of Oregon—also saw no need to tinker with the tax code if no major gain in revenue was expected. With that kind of reaction from the Republican Senate, convincing the House Ways and Means Committee to endorse the plan is simply out of the question.

When members of Congress think about the budget, they cannot help but think about the budget process, and in fact about other institutional dilemmas. There is strong evidence that the 99th Congress will turn some of its attention to the way Congress as a whole does its business. Thoughtful members of both Houses are concerned not only with the legislative issues, but also their own workload, their committee assignments, the demands placed on them by constituents and lobbyists, and even the effect of their jobs on personal and family life. In the summer of 1984 a select Senate committee chaired by Dan Quayle (R-IN) met to study the Senate committee system. As if to dramatize one of the chief complaints of Senators, a number of the committee’s scheduled meetings were cancelled because members had other pressing commitments and could not attend. In the House, a perennial gripe is the need to constantly raise campaign funds by soliciting the ubiquitous political action committees. House Democrats also hope to prevent conservative Republicans from using late afternoon “special orders” (i.e. speeches made after the House has concluded its legislative business) to reach a national constituency via cable TV. And the Republicans themselves are debating whether to develop a national theme for future House elections by generic party advertising, or to encourage candidates to run local campaigns based on local issues.


Reelection is not the only thing members of Congress think about. It is, however, the first thing most think about, for the simple reason that those who ignore the electoral impact of their actions soon find themselves on the mailing list of the Association of Former Members of Congress. One can sympathize with the demands reelection places on members, just as one recognizes that politicians freely choose their own careers. James Madison’s advice in Federalist 52 is still pertinent:

As it is essential to liberty that the government in general should have a common interest with the people, so it is particularly essential that the branch of it under consideration (i.e. the House) should have an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people. Frequent elections are unquestionably the only policy by which this dependence and sympathy can be effectually secured.

The House of Representatives, by any sober analysis, will remain in Democratic control for the foreseeable future. Control of both the presidency and the Senate will shift between the parties, most probably in the next election. Such a prospect will be frustrating to those on the left and right who see obstruction on the part of their opponents.

These observations are not intended to trivialize any of the issues of concern to readers of Catholicism in Crisis. The validity of any cause is not determined by its political success or failure—at least in the short run. If one could make the argument that clear solutions to our national problems are at hand, but the constitutional separation of powers prevents them from being adopted, the parliamentary reforms advocated by some groups would merit more serious consideration. If, on the other hand, a presidential-congressional impasse is merely a reflection of our own national indecision on the major questions, the case for reform is much harder to make. After all, our system of government is based on the idea that unless a majority is clear and forceful, a minority with strong objections will be able to hold its ground. There are worse systems.



  • Thomas Skladony

    ThomasSkladony was a research assistant for the Congress Project at the American Enterprise Institute.

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