Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Riding (Political) Coattails

In electoral politics, pundits and observers often look for signs that election results at the top of the ballot – for example, for President – are affecting those down the ballot, for Congress or for state offices. Dubbed the coattail effect, political analysts disagree about whether it exists at all, and if it does, when an electoral outcome can be attributed to it.

Amid a massive Republican presidential landslide for Richard Nixon in 1972, Democrats netted two U.S. Senate seats; they gained one in 1984, during Ronald Reagan’s similarly lopsided reelection victory. Meanwhile, Republicans netted modest totals of 12 and 16 U.S. House seats, respectively, in those years – not nearly enough to overcome Democratic majorities in that chamber that would last until 1994.

President Obama’s solid victory in 2008 did accompany impressive Democratic wins for Congress, with gains of eight seats in the Senate (for a 59-41 majority, the widest for either party since the 1970s) and 21 in the House (for a 257-178 majority, the widest since 1992). However, like Lyndon Johnson’s more overwhelming 1964 landslide, congressional results in 2008 may have simply represented a welcoming year for the Democratic Party, both “up” and “down” the ballot, rather than evidencing far-flung Obama coattails.

1980 gives us the most convincing example of presidential coattails in modern history. In that election, Reagan ousted incumbent President Jimmy Carter by a wide popular vote margin of 50.7 percent to 41 percent, and brought with him net GOP gains of 34 House seats (considerably narrowing, but not overturning, the Democrats’ majority) and a stunning 12 Senate seats, moving that chamber from a wide 58-41 Democratic edge to a 53-46 Republican one and ending 26 years of Democratic reign over the “world’s greatest deliberative body.”

Few states that year produced more earth-shattering results than Georgia, where despite an easy 56 percent to 41 percent presidential win for native son Jimmy Carter, four-term incumbent Democratic Senator Herman Talmadge lost a close 51-to-49 race to state Republican Party chairman Mack Mattingly. Mattingly’s victory, by about 27,500 votes and a 1.7 percent margin, was the first for a Republican Senate candidate in Georgia since Reconstruction more than a century earlier, and the first since the 17th Amendment created popular elections for the U.S. Senate.

Above: Mattingly on the campaign trail, 1980. Mack F. Mattingly Papers, Russell Library.

Talmadge Campaign Leaflet, 1980 re-election campaign. Herman E. Talmadge Collection, Russell Library.

A number of factors led to Talmadge's defeat -- among them his known battle with alcoholism, and allegations of financial misconduct which landed him before the Senate Ethics Committee in 1979. When combined with a strong challenge from Zell Miller in the Democratic Primary, Talmadge's campaign was in a weakened state by the general election in November. In a year dominated by Republican victories, its difficult to say what might have happened had Talmadge not faced scandal and personal difficulties during the campaign. Mattingly served in the U.S. Senate only one term, losing to Democrat Wyche Fowler in 1986.

Below: Marion Baker and Timmy O'Keefe campaigning for HET, Savannah, GA, 1980. Herman E. Talmadge Collection, Russell Library.

To find out more about the ins and outs of the 1980 Senatorial campaign between Talmadge and Mattingly, take a look through their finding aids online HERE. Scrapbooks (available on microfilm) from the Mattingly collection, compiled by the senator's staff and family, record the highlights of the senator's political career and campaigns. The Talmadge Political Series documents all his political campaigns from 1956-1980 .

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