Parties and Power Volatility

October 23, 2018

Historically frequent changes in party control of White House, Congress to continue?

In addition to the many imminent questions about the U.S. elections Tuesday, November 6, is a more historical one of continuity and volatility. The back-and-forth changes of party control in Congress and the White House seen during the past decade are unlike anything in the last hundred years.

Historic Volatility

From 1914 through 2016, there were 52 presidential-year or mid-term elections.  From 1914 through 1990, a party in control of the White House, Senate, or House of Representatives lost at least one of those in 13 of those 39 elections.  From 1992 to 2016, a party lost control of at least one of these bodies in nine of those 13 elections.  If the Democrats win the House in 2018, as is largely expected, that would be a change in party control in 10 of the last 14 elections. That is, a change in party control of the presidency, Senate, or House (or a combination) would have occurred in 33 percent of the elections from 1914 to 1990, and in 70 percent of the elections since 1992.

The past decade has been even more dramatic.  From 2006 to 2016, a party has lost control of at least one of these (White House, House, or Senate) in five of those six elections (83 percent).  If the House flips to Democrats in 2018, that would be changes in six of the last seven elections, or 86 percent over the last 12 years compared to 33 percent in earlier decades.

For comparison, there was only one year with changes in the seven elections from 1962 to 1974 (Nixon in 1968), and only two years in the 12 elections from 1922 to 1944.

There is no comparable volatility in the last hundred years.  The closest comparison is the decade after World War II.  Compared to the results of the previous election, both the House and Senate flipped parties in 1946, 1948, 1952, and 1954 – four out of five elections, and the White House flipped in 1952.

During that decade after the 1944 election, World War II ended, the Cold War began, and the Korean War was fought for three years. The Soviets launched a successful nuclear weapons test, Mao turned China communist, and the U.S. was involved in the overthrow of regimes in Iran and Guatemala.  Truman integrated the military, and the Supreme Court decided Brown vs Board of Education.  It was a period of sharp economic swings, with short periods of U.S. GDP growth over five and even ten percent, followed by steep economic contractions.

The electoral volatility since 2006 has some possible explanations as well.  By 2006, elections were influenced by increasingly unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The 2008 election of the country’s first African-American president during an historic financial crisis was followed by the rise of TEA Party energy among intra-Republican divisions.  Immigration and identity politics emerged as important issues.  Candidates Obama and Trump campaigned relatively independent of their national party organizations, and in their own ways were social media innovators.  Party favorites like Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton struggled.  #NeverTrump Republicans and Clinton’s 2016 battle against “outsider” Bernie Sanders illustrated prominent intra-party divisions in both parties.  Whichever party wins in November 2018, in January 2019 Congress will have its fourth change in Speaker of the House in 12 years. 

Implications of Party Volatility

This sharp – and sustained – rise in volatility among party control of the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives raises a number of questions for further inquiry.  Among these:  What causes these periods of volatility – seen after World War II and in the past ten years?  What are the implications of this volatility?  And is this a temporary phenomenon, or a “new normal”?

What do you think?

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