Could the GOP Make Gains in the US House Even If Trump Loses?

It may seem unlikely in 2020, but almost half the cycles in which partisan control of the White House has flipped, the outgoing party still made gains in the lower legislative chamber

There is still hope in GOP circles that the party will not only pick off some Democratic-held U.S. House seats in November, but protect enough of their nearly three-dozen open seats so that in the end they will make inroads on their opponent’s current 34-seat majority.

At first blush, Joe Biden’s current rosy poll numbers suggest it would be difficult for Republicans to net gains down the ballot.

However, history is certainly ripe with examples of one party flipping the White House whilst the other picked up seats in the People’s House.

In the post-1828 modern two-party era, partisan control of the presidency has changed 22 times.

In nearly half of those cycles – 10 – the party that lost control of the presidency still netted U.S. House seats.

This most recently happened during the 2016 cycle, when Donald Trump succeeded term-limited Barack Obama and Democrats won the consolation prize by netting a half-dozen seats.

This scenario has played out during three of the last four cycles in which the control of the White House changed hands.

In 1992, Republicans gained nine seats after redistricting when Bill Clinton won his first term and in 2000 Democrats netted a modest one seat as George W. Bush took back the presidency for the GOP.

Prior to 1992, however, such occurrences were rare: occurring only one other time since the late 1800s. In 1960, Republicans gained 22 seats in the chamber as John Kennedy narrowly won the presidency.

The remaining cycles include:

  • 1844 (Democrat James Polk): Whig +8 seats
  • 1848 (Whig Zachary Taylor): Democrat +5 seats
  • 1868 (Republican Ulysses Grant): Democrat +20 seats
  • 1884 (Democrat Grover Cleveland): Republican +24 seats
  • 1892 (Democrat Grover Cleveland): Republican +38 seats
  • 1896 (Republican William McKinley): Democrat +31 seats

In the 12 remaining cycles since 1828, the party flipping the White House also gained ground down ballot in U.S. House elections:

  • 1840 (Whig William H. Harrison): Whigs +26 seats
  • 1852 (Democrat Franklin Pierce): Democrats +33 seats
  • 1860 (Republican Abraham Lincoln): [Both parties lost seats in elections for the 37th Congress due to secession by southern and border states, but Republicans lost fewer than Democrats]
  • 1888 (Republican Benjamin Harrison): Republican +27 seats
  • 1912 (Democrat Woodrow Wilson): Democrat +61 seats
  • 1920 (Republican Warren Harding): Republican +63 seats
  • 1932 (Democrat Franklin Roosevelt): Democrat +97 seats
  • 1952 (Republican Dwight Eisenhower): Republican +22 seats
  • 1968 (Republican Richard Nixon): Republican +5 seats
  • 1976 (Democrat Jimmy Carter): Democrat +1 seat
  • 1980 (Republican Ronald Reagan): Republican +34 seats
  • 2008 (Democrat Barack Obama): Democrat +21 seats

One additional factor that might thwart Republicans from gaining ground in the chamber in 2020 if they lose the White House is the sheer number of open seats they are defending – more than three times as many as Democrats due to retirement or resignation (30 in all – with more than a quarter of those in competitive districts).

It should be noted that several of the cycles in which a party did make large gains in the U.S. House despite losing control of the White House immediately followed a devastating midterm election during which they shed a particularly large number of seats (e.g. 1882, 1890, 1894, 1958). The question remains whether the 41-seat Democratic pick-up in 2018 was outsized (and thus prompting a ‘correction’ to the GOP) or a sign of further gains for the party.

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2 Comments on "Could the GOP Make Gains in the US House Even If Trump Loses?"

  1. 1. Are some in “GOP circles” actually hopeful of making net gains in the “People’s House” because the DEMs are currently overextended (e.g. Kendra Horn of OK, Joe Cunningham of SC), or because, since the party does not control the chamber, the contenders for the body are not as burdened with the ongoing chaos, dysfunction, and malaise as their co-partisans who are in fact in charge of the other political institutions?

    2. The ‘great deliberative body’ also has had similar contrary trends/results, e.g. 2016, 2000, 1992 (only due to the unique runoff law covering the Senate election – but, curiously, not the presidential statewide election thereof – in Georgia), 1976, 1960, among others. However, due to their too-close-for-comfort ties, the party seems certain to suffer losses – perhaps well in excess of four seats net – should “45” fail to be re-elected.

  2. The 1960, 1992, 2000, and 2016 elections were all marked by historically weak popular-vote performances by the winning Presidential candidate. In 2000 and 2016, of course, the winner actually finished second in the popular vote. And, as Sean Trende points out, one can argue that Nixon also got more votes than JFK in 1960, due to the situation with the Alabama unpledged electors.

    Clinton had a popular-vote plurality in 1992, but won only 43% of the popular vote,the weakest performance of any winning presidential candidate since Wilson.

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