Obama’s Coattails Were Long but Not Flowing

Posted November 7, 2008 at 5:23pm

The results are in, and it’s a Democratic sweep — Barack Obama is president-elect and the Democrats gained ground in both the House and the Senate. But Democratic expectations may have gotten slightly ahead of reality.

Before the elections, it was unclear whether Obama would draw enough young voters and black voters to the polls to push Democratic Senate and House candidates to victory, whether he would run well in particular states and regions — especially in the South, where Democrats have been having trouble in recent years — and whether his impact extended to other races and even to key ballot initiatives.

To gauge these unknowns, Roll Call published 10 questions on Election Day that were designed to measure how big an impact Obama would have on other races that day. The scoring system was stringent, given the potential for a massive Obama-led wave.

In the end, the answer to most of these questions is that Obama did have coattails — but hardly everywhere. Gains in the House and Senate — while nothing to sneeze at — ultimately fell a bit short of what some analysts had been predicting, perhaps because voters who were eager to see Obama win nonetheless got cold feet about giving his party unfettered control of Washington, D.C., or simply didn’t vote for other offices. That would explain why a spate of vulnerable Republicans were returned to the House and Senate.

When all is said and done, these questions suggest that the Democratic gains, while impressive, did not match the scale of the Democratic tide in the 2006 midterms.

Here are the questions, and the answers revealed since the polls closed.

1. How many out of a given list of states both voted for Obama and elected the Democrat in a competitive, Republican-held Senate contest, rather than splitting their tickets?

This was a strong factor for Obama. The Democrats won both contests in six of the listed states: Colorado, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon and Virginia. They failed only in Maine (where GOP Sen. Susan Collins pulled out an easy victory), and, at press time Friday, were trailing in Minnesota, where Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken are headed to an automatic recount even though Obama easily won the state.

Give Obama four points out of a possible six.

2. In 17 of the most reliably Republican states in recent elections, how many points better than 2004 Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) did Obama do?

This one was a more modest result for Obama. He gained ground in the West, in parts of the South and in the Great Plains, but he actually lost ground in Tennessee, Louisiana and Arkansas.

Here’s the breakdown: Utah (up 8 over Kerry); Nebraska (up 8); South Dakota (up 7); Georgia (up 6); Texas (up 6); Idaho (up 6); South Carolina (up 4); Wyoming (up 4); Kansas (up 4); Mississippi (up 3); Alabama (up 2); Kentucky (up 1); Alaska (no change); Oklahoma (no change); Tennessee (down 1); Louisiana (down 2); and Arkansas (down 6). That’s a cumulative total of 50.

Give Obama two points out of a possible six.

3. How many GOP-held Senate seats in the South did the Democrats win?

The Democrats won the open seat vacated by Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) and ousted Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), but they failed to unseat Sens. Roger Wicker (Miss.) and Mitch McConnell (Ky.), and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) is favored in an expected runoff. The Democrats also re-elected Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

Give Obama three points of a possible five.

4. How many of the following competitive House races in the South did the Democrats win?

Obama’s strongest coattails on Election Day arguably came with House seats, which are the focus of this and the succeeding two questions.

In the South, the following Democrats survived stiff challenges: Reps. John Barrow (Ga.), Travis Childers (Miss.), Jim Marshall (Ga.) and John Yarmuth (Ky.). Democrats also won the open seats vacated by three House lawmakers: Bud Cramer (D-Ala.), Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Terry Everett (R-Ala.). Democratic challengers ousted GOP Reps. Thelma Drake (Va.) and Robin Hayes (N.C.), and a Democrat has declared victory over Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.) in an exceedingly close race.

On the downside, the Democrats were unable to re-elect Reps. Nick Lampson (Texas) and Don Cazayoux (La.), and they failed to secure the open seat of Rep. Ron Lewis (R-Ky.).

Obama gets five points on this question, regardless of whether Goode survives.

5. How many GOP-held House seats did the Democrats flip in the following presidential battleground states? The states are: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The Democrats managed to oust GOP Reps. Marilyn Musgrave (Colo.), Ric Keller (Fla.), Tom Feeney (Fla.), Joe Knollenberg (Mich.), Tim Walberg (Mich.), Jon Porter (Nev.), Hayes, Steve Chabot (Ohio), Phil English (Pa.) and Drake.

They also flipped the open seats previously held by Republican Reps. Rick Renzi (Ariz.), Heather Wilson (N.M.), Steve Pearce (N.M.), Ralph Regula (Ohio) and Davis.

If Democrats win either of the too-close-to-call races involving Goode and the seat being vacated by Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), they’ll gain one more point. But for now, give Obama four points out of five.

6. How many Democratic-held House seats did the Republicans flip in the following presidential battleground states? The states are: Arizona, Florida, Indiana, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin.

The Democrats only lost the seat of scandal-tarred Rep. Tim Mahoney (Fla.). Give Obama one point out of a possible two.

7. How many of the following 2008 gubernatorial races did the Democrats win? The states are: Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Vermont and Washington.

As expected, Democrat Jay Nixon flipped a GOP-held open seat in Missouri, and the party managed to keep two embattled governorships in the fold — Washington, where incumbent Christine Gregoire faced a tough re-election challenge, and North Carolina, where Beverly Perdue won a hard-fought race to succeed outgoing Gov. Mike Easley (D). In Washington and North Carolina, analysts credited the surge of support for Obama with aiding the Democratic candidates’ chances.

But Democrats were unable to secure the GOP-held governorships of Indiana and Vermont, even though both states went blue this year on the presidential level — in Indiana’s case, for the first time since 1964. Give Obama three points out of six.

8. How many of the following Republican-held state legislative chambers were the Democrats able to flip? The chambers are: Alaska Senate, Arizona House, Arizona Senate, Delaware House, Montana House, New York Senate, North Dakota Senate, Nevada Senate, Ohio House, South Dakota Senate, Texas House and Wisconsin Assembly.

On Election Day, the Democrats took over the Delaware House, New York Senate, Nevada Senate, Ohio House and Wisconsin Assembly, while they forced a tie in the Alaska Senate and Montana House. The GOP, by contrast, held on in both Arizona chambers, the North Dakota Senate, South Dakota Senate and appears to be ahead narrowly in the Texas House.

Giving a half-point for each of the newly tied chambers, Obama gets four points out of six.

9. How many of the following 2008 state attorney general races did the Democrats win? The states are: Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington and West Virginia.

The Democrat won in five of these contests — Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia. Give Obama three points out of six.

10. How will voters react to key ballot measures? Will voters in California, Colorado and Missouri approve clean-energy measures supported by environmentalists? And will voters approve bans on gay marriage (in Arizona, California and Florida) and a ban on gay adoption (in Arkansas)?

Only the voters in Missouri approved a clean energy initiative, while all four same-sex-related bans passed. Give Obama one point out of a possible 11.

Now it’s time to add up the points from each question. The following scale was used to gauge how strong the Obama effect was.

50 points or more: Very strong
40 to 49 points: Strong
30 to 39 points: OK but not great
20 to 29 points: Disappointing
10 to 19 points: Very disappointing
Nine or fewer points: Democrats, go back to the drawing board.

Obama’s total coattails score is 30 — just barely edging him out of the “Disappointing” category and into the “OK but not great” category. And that won’t change significantly even if the Democrats win in some of the yet-to-be-called races.

In other words, the president-elect can bask in the glow of a historic presidential election victory, but he ought not get overconfident about how much he was able to move the needle for Democrats running downballot. He’s got four more years to work on that, though.