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Rainy Political Parades

October 22nd, 2018 by dk

I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but if there’s one thing we know about in Oregon, it’s rainy parades. They don’t have to be terrible, so long as you’re properly prepared.

Political punditry has relished the historical precedent of any new President’s first Congressional election after taking office. It’s always a bloodbath for the President’s party, and it’s been getting worse as everything has gotten more polarized. Like all the worst misstatements, this one is partly true.

New Democratic presidents taking a shellacking in that first election, but Republicans have been mostly shielded from it. If it’s a referendum on the current presidency, the electorate has been judging Democrats far more harshly that Republicans.

Jimmy Carter lost 17 Congressional seats in 1978. Bill Clinton lost 63 in 1994. Barack Obama lost 69 in 2010. We even have memorable names for the last two uprisings: Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, and the Tea Party Revolt.

Republicans faced no equivalent bloodbaths. Ronald Reagan lost only two seats in 1982. George H.W. Bush lost nine in 1990. George W. Bush, thanks to the 9/11 attacks, gained nine in 2002. Half the time, the wave has been barely a trickle or less.

Why the “referendum effect” afflicts Democratic presidents more harshly than Republican presidents is just one question we could be analyzing if the broader assumption stopped going unchecked. I suspect that Democrats have a tendency to govern, which upsets some who don’t like the choices that are made, while Republicans don’t do enough actual governing to upset either side.

The next assumption that should be exposed as dubious is that close races have an even chance of breaking in either direction. Again, a closer examination shows that Republicans more often win the nail-biters. In fact, Republicans seem to prefer a close race, because it means they didn’t waste money to secure more votes than necessary.

When it’s money versus manpower, we know which can be reallocated more quickly. (And if the alliterative “manpower” upsets you, that points to another problem entirely.)

Let’s look at another asymmetrical trope: “energizing the base.” Both ends of the political spectrum — and we are talking about the extremes at either end — succeed on this, but with wildly different results. Do I have to tell you which side’s results are more effectual?

When the left gets energized, they hit the streets. They march, they knock on doors, they get active. Trouble is, it’s very difficult to keep all this energy focused in a single direction. It’s so easy for somebody to insist that “personpower” is more important that alliteration. Just like that.

The political right asks for much less from its adherents: write a check or return a ballot. Moreover, their efforts can be focused on just one day a year. When the motivating energy is based on fear or anger, you can keep the resolve focused only very briefly.

This is (one reason) why liberals love vote by mail and conservatives love long lines at the polling sites. Anything that makes people angry just before they vote will favor the side that plays to that anger.

A desire for hope and change may last longer, but it’s not as brutally effective on Election Day as our baser instincts. It doesn’t take much to offer a disillusioned activist something much easier — a lifetime of bitter resentment or docile apathy. If the system doesn’t work, either outcome will suffice.

Finally, don’t discount the possibility of some dramatic move that incites patriotism at the very last minute. Will the military be sent to the Mexican border a day before the election? Will Iran rattle some sabers? Will Russia end our decades or disarmament?

None of these frightening scenarios can be discounted at this point. Republicans — and this president, in particular — don’t distract themselves with what will be necessary the day after an election. That’s what losers do, or those who have a desire to govern.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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