The primaries, the conventions, and the media have focused so much attention on the US presidential candidates that it’s sometimes easy to forget all the other federal elections being held this year; for 34 seats in the Senate and 435 in the House (plus five nonvoting delegates). The next president’s chances of success will depend largely on the congressional majorities this election will produce.
Lyndon Johnson once observed that because of their different election cycles, presidents and Congress run “on separate clocks.” Presidents know they need to act promptly, their predecessors having achieving their greatest legislative victories during the first years after their election, before members of Congress headed home to run for reelection in the next cycle. With two year terms–the shortest of any national legislature– House members campaign continuously. Senators’ longer terms offer them more of a breathing spell. Georgia Senator Richard Russell used to say that a six-year term permitted senators to spend two years as a statesman, two years as a politician, and two years as a demagogue. But the six-year cycle means that in every other election, US senators will face the voters drawn to the polls by a presidential campaign.
13 of the senators running for reelection this year were first elected in 2010, when tea party activists scored their first big gains. That year, only 37.8% of the electorate came out to vote, a typical turnout for a congressional election. By contrast, a presidential election will attract an average of 54% of the voters. That means that those running for reelection now will collectively face about forty million more voters than their last time up – a substantially different electorate.
Historically, presidential victors have provided coattails for their party’s congressional prospects. Having made up their mind about a president, voters tend to favor the same party’s Senate and House candidates. If a presidential nominee happens to be unpopular in a state or district, congressional candidates will run local campaigns that steer clear of the national ticket, and will be nowhere to be seen whenever the national nominee holds a local rally. If congressional candidates win elections by larger margins than the president, the White House will find it difficult to convince them to vote for bills that may be unpopular back home. Members of Congress who attribute their victory to the president’s coattails, however, will more readily support the president, out of gratitude and self-preservation.
Losing presidential candidates have wreaked havoc on their parties in Congress. Barry Goldwater’s disastrous campaign in 1964 gave Democrats forty more seats in the House of Representatives. Lyndon Johnson’s chief legislative liaison calculated that Medicare, “for all practical purposes,” passed on election night, as did much of the rest of Johnson’s Great Society agenda, thanks to all those extra votes in Congress. Jimmy Carter’s early-evening concession in 1980 depressed voter turnout in the West, where polls remained open for several more hours. His poor timing cost several veteran Democrats their seats and their party lost the majority in the Senate for the first time in a quarter century.
As soon as this year’s votes are tallied, the president-elect will begin surveying the political landscape and counting heads in the House and Senate. Although presidential candidates are fond of promising all they will in “my first day in office,” the constitutional separation of powers hampers any executive action without congressional support – starting with presidents’ nominations for the cabinet and judiciary, and working through their entire legislative wish list. A lot more is at stake in 2016 than just the presidency.
Featured Image Credit: US Capitol east front by Martin Falbisoner. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.