John A. Tures: Lessons from '96 shutdown

October 14, 2013 

Matt Towery, a nationally respected Georgia columnist, penned a column last week on the government shutdown. It offered the theory that the shutdown that occurred over the standoff between the House of Representatives and Senate on one side, and the White House on the other, did not damage the Republican Party in the 1996 election. Is he right?

First, there is the matter of the presidential election. We all know President Bill Clinton was reelected, but by how much? Clinton won 379 votes in the Electoral College, or more than 70 percent of the total votes from states. I remember a GOP supporter at Florida State University where I went to graduate school arguing that most of those state votes were close. Actually, of the 15 closest margins of victory, Dole won ten of those, including his biggest state (Texas). In other words, Clinton was much closer to a Reaganesque blowout than Dole was to making it a close contest in the popular vote.

Republicans argue that the popular vote was much closer. Actually, it was nine percentage points, a pretty wide margin (ten percentage points is the political science statistician's definition of a landslide). In the end, most in the GOP have now written of Dole as a bad candidate. In reality, Dole's war record, experience in Congress, prior pursuit of the White House (giving him voter recognition), stable private life (in comparison to Clinton) and decent debate skills, he was quite a viable candidate. Before the shutdown, he was leading Clinton in the polls. He was hurt by something else.

Towery notes that the GOP kept the U.S. Senate, picking up two seats. He's right, of course. But the GOP won because three popular veteran Democratic senators (Howell Heflin, David Pryor and James Exon) stepped down, creating three open seats that the GOP filled, mostly because the Democrats defeated their best candidate, Rep. Glen Browder, in the primary. Arkansas Democrats were hurt by the shenanigans of Bill Clinton and Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, who went to jail. And Democrats were caught napping when Gov. Ben Nelson was upset by a wily Centrist, Chuck Hagel. The only incumbent who lost was South Dakota Senator Larry Pressler, a Republican. Don't forget that Democrats took Sen. Bob Packwood's seat in Oregon in a January 30, 1996 Special Election (less than a month after the shutdown ended), halving the GOP gains from the election cycle. And Republicans failed to take Sen. Sam Nunn's seat. Without these retirements, Democrats would have gained in the U.S. Senate.

It's a similar story in the House of Representatives elections. Towery admits that the GOP lost ground, but lost only a net of three seats. But again, we need to take a closer look. Statistics show 18 Republican incumbents went down to defeat against Democratic challengers. The GOP managed to take down only three Democrats, two of whom only narrowly survived the 1994 GOP sweep thanks to third parties.

Republicans were able to minimize their losses thanks to Democrats giving up seats. Some were skittish incumbents who announced retirement plans in early 1995, fearing another GOP landslide in 1996 that never materialized. Had the majority of these developed a backbone, the outcome would have been different. In other cases, popular incumbents gave up their seats to run for the U.S. Senate. Without these losses, the House would be virtually tied after 1996.

Going into the 2014 election, it isn't Democrats who are making up the retirement club. It's Republicans like Florida's Bill Young, who has been in office since 1971. He leaves a district where there are as many Democrats as Republicans, a prime opportunity for a pickup. Republicans hoping for a replay of the 1996 shutdown election may find themselves locked out of the House.

John A. Tures, associate professor of political science, LaGrange College; jtures@lagrange.edu.

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