Would Democrats Give Up the White House to Make Gains Down-Ballot?

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President Obama Addresses The Nation On Terrorism And San Bernardino Attacks
Would big gains in congressional and state elections be worth giving up this fine historic residence?Photo: Win McNamee/2015 Getty Images

Both Republican triumphalists and Democratic hand-wringers have spent a lot of time since the 2014 elections noting the unusually strong position of the former and weak position of the latter in state elected offices around the country. Add in Republican control of Congress, and you have GOPers dreaming dreams of a new Gilded Age of top-to-bottom political control, wherein conservative policy goals long dreamed of — re-criminalization of abortion, elimination of progressive taxes, abolition of labor unions — could become practical and even achievable. Democrats, meanwhile, plot a down-ballot comeback, though any succor seems to be down the road, after a redistricting cycle preceded by one of those presidential years in which Democrats tend to do well. 

But as Vox’s Ezra Klein notes in perhaps the most thorough discussion of the topic so far, there’s a dual structural problem Democrats face in executing a congressional and state comeback: Democratic constituencies don’t vote in midterm elections as much as do Republicans, and even if that problem is solved, the party making gains in midterms is usually the one that does not control the White House. (It is true that there have been two exceptions to that rule relatively recently, in 1998 and in 2002, but those outliers are beginning to recede in the rear-view mirror.)

[B]ig wave elections in Congress and the states tend to only happen when parties aren’t in the White House. And given that Democrats do better in presidential years, and have more states’ electoral votes locked up than Republicans do, it could be a while before they’re out of the White House and able to recover elsewhere.

To hear Klein tell it, you might wonder if some congressional and state-level Democrats are secretly hoping for a GOP presidential victory in 2016, albeit it perhaps one with no coattails. 

The more relevant question, and the one that needs to be asked to put all the panicky talk of Democratic down-ballot doom into perspective, is whether Democrats would prefer to do better in congressional and state elections at the cost of a Republican White House. The power of the presidency via appointments (especially to the U.S. Supreme Court), the veto pen, and executive policy-making has become vastly more apparent since Barack Obama’s Senate firewall was dismantled in 2014. A GOP presidential victory next year could quickly lead to a reversal of all of Obama’s executive orders on immigration, climate change, and other topics, and, if Republicans maintain even bare control of Congress, to a budget reconciliation bill crippling Obamacare, radically changing Medicare and Medicaid, and slashing corporate and high-end tax rates. The swing vote on the Supreme Court on a host of constitutional issues from the right to choose to the right to vote is also almost certainly in play. And depending on the precise identity of a Republican president, the United States could be entangled with heavy involvement in one or more Middle Eastern wars within weeks.

Considering all that, I doubt there are many Democrats willing to even think of taking a dive in 2016. But if they do hold on to the White House next year, and 2018 brings another terrible midterm for the Donkey Party (and the Senate landscape that year, to cite just one problem, is going to be wildly favorable to the GOP), we could begin to see some takers for the proposition of being the “out party” again, as Democrats were in their last two “wave election” wins in 2006 and 2008.