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A History of Democratic High Points, 1912-2012

Election season is once again upon us, and so, I have figured, why not get in on that action a little and combine my love of history and historical patterns in one big project for you all? I'm sure there is nothing controversial about politics, after all... So, to start off the month of October, I present to you all my project from September: A History of Democratic High Points, 1912-2012. The project seeks to, as the name implies, map out the high points by decade of the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives starting in 1912 and ending in 2012, as that was the highest mark for the Democrats in the House in the 2010s thus far.

Now, while the project has an obvious bent towards one party, that is not to say it is trying to favor one, so much as that as the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives for roughly 2/3 of the years of the 20th century, it makes for a more vivid picture to show the high points of that party and the way the party's coalition moved and changed in that time from a southern-based one to a hybrid and finally to an emerging new coalition that we are seeing in recent years. I do plan on a similar project for Republicans, but am currently mulling over a starting point, whether it would be better to start around the end of the Civil War or not, given the differences in how the parties separate themselves or not from their histories. Either way, I hope you all enjoy the project and no matter who you back this November, please remember to vote, as it is such a blessing that we enjoy.

(Also, hint, right click to open the images in their full size in your browser of choice.)

1912 House of Representatives Elections


The 1912 elections marked the first time since Grover Cleveland that there was not only a Democratic President, but that he would have a Democratic House to govern with. With the Republican Party rife with conflict over the fights between party hardliners and Progressives, led by Teddy Roosevelt, the Democrats were able to successfully position themselves as the party of stability and unity for the elections. In addition, 41 seats were added to the House of Representatives following the 1910 US Census, and many of them ended up in Democratic hands, particularly in growing southern states like Texas, which allowed the Democrats to increase their majority in the House—which they had gained back for the first time since 1894 in 1910—by 61 seats.

1922 House of Representatives Elections



The 1922 elections were the height of the Democratic Party for the 1920s, in what was marked as a rough decade for the Democratic Party that fought to find its footing and identity in a country that latched onto good feelings and postwar prosperity. However, that did not stop the Democrats from forcing Republicans into a narrow majority following the 1922 midterms in which continued division among the Republican ranks following the 1920 blowout (the highest point reached by the Republicans in the 20th century) between the conservatives and progressives as well as Republicans having to fight to hold on to a large number of marginal seats led to a large number of gains for Democrats: 76 all told. Not enough for a majority, but with the continued divisions and rise of factions like Senator LaFollette's Progressives and the birth of the populist offshoot Farmer-Labor Party, primarily concentrated in Minnesota, it made governing that much more difficult. The Socialists would also pick up a seat in Milwaukee, to round out the eclectic collection of parties for the era.

1936 House of Representatives Elections



This wave of elections, coming on the heels of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's record-setting victory for re-election as President, would be the zenith of Democrats not just in the 1930s, not just in the 20th century, but ever. At 334 out of 435 seats, Democrats controlled 76.78% of all total seats in the House of Representatives, a total they have not matched since and has only ever been surpassed by the 1866 Republicans with 78.125% in the midst of Reconstruction with not every state returning delegates. Bolstered by public faith in the New Deal, including the passing of the Social Security Act by the House in August 1935 by an overwhelming vote and a lack of Republican unity or organization against the Democratic coalition under FDR, the Democrats were virtually unstoppable. This election was also a high water mark for two major third parties of the era: the Progressive Party of Wisconsin and the Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota. The Progressives managed to win 8 seats, including 1 outside their power base of Wisconsin all the way in San Francisco while the Farmer-Labor Party returned to their previous high point of 5 seats set in the 1930 midterms.

1940 House of Representatives Elections


After the nadir would, naturally, come the decline, and so the high point of the Democratic Party in the decade of the 1940s was in the very first year. Following a high number of losses in the 1938 midterms due to defending a large number of marginal seats as well as the 1937-38 recession, Democrats were once again boosted by Franklin D. Roosevelt as well as economic recovery following that very recession. This election was also notable as the last to occur during the Second World War but prior to the entry of the United States into the conflict, and one of the primary issues of day was the question of neutrality in that war. Ultimately, Roosevelt's resounding victory for an unprecedented third term and the Democratic recovery of several seats gave the party a mandate going into the fateful years of 1941-1943, which would prove to be some of the most world-changing in history. On another note, this was also the last election as of 2018 in which 6 parties were represented in Congress, and the beginning of the end for the Farmer-Labor Party and the Progressive Party. Many of the Progressives would end up rejoining the Republican Party just a few years later while the Farmer-Labor Party would strike a deal with Minnesota's Democratic Party to form the Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (DFL for short) which stands to this day, and currently holds 5 of the state's 8 Congressional House seats, both of the state's U.S. Senators, the Governor's office, and minorities in Minnesota's House of Representatives and Senate.

1958 House of Representatives Elections


The next Democratic high point would not come until 18 years later, near the tail end of the Eisenhower era and a very changed world. By then, the Second World War had ended and the Republicans had taken back and lost the House twice during the tumultuous years after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democratic Party's splintering and struggle to find its footing as a party of both segregation and unequal opportunity in the south and of liberalism and social justice in the north, as outlined by Hubert Humphrey's famous speech at the 1948 Democratic National Convention. The New Deal Coalition had been reconstructed and taken back the House in 1954, and Democrats would not hand it back until after the 1994 midterms' "Republican Revolution", 40 years later. The 1958 midterm was a tie for the second-largest gain in a single year for Democrats in the latter half of the 20th century, as unrest due to the 1958 recession and continued conflicts over civil rights, Cold War policy, and ongoing poverty and working rights caused a swelling of support for Democrats and led them to a very sizable majority in time for the fateful 1960 Presidential election.

1964 House of Representatives Elections


Following on the heels of the Civil Rights Act, the 1964 House elections would take the Democrats to the highest point they had experienced since the 1936 elections 28 years earlier, and a height that the party has not again reached as of this writing. The elections were cast as part of the tumultuous and bitterly-fought 1964 Presidential Campaign by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had assumed the role following the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963, and conservative firebrand Barry Goldwater. While the ultimate election was a massive wipeout for Goldwater and the Republicans in both the Presidential ticket and in the House, there were signs of a shift in the electorate. Barry Goldwater won 5 states in the Deep South which had been drifting around various third parties up until that point rather than vote Democrat (most of the time), and Lyndon B. Johnson won the rock-ribbed Republican states of Maine and Vermont, the latter of which had never voted for a Democrat in any election in its history; the last election in which it had not voted Republican being 1852 in which the state had voted for Whig candidate Winfield Scott. In the House elections the shifts geographically were not quite as immediate so much as retaking lost seats despite a steady erosion of the New Deal Coalition, but there still was, for the first time since Reconstruction, the matter of Republicans winning seats in the Deep South including a majority of seats in Alabama while Democrats picked up strength not seen in many decades in areas such as New England, Upstate New York, and suburban Detroit. This large mandate would give President Johnson the power to enact policies such as his Great Society programs and the Voting Rights Act, even though a certain war in Southeast Asia would leave the policy decisions decided in Congress far less remembered from the era.

1976 House of Representatives Elections


Though the 1974 midterm elections are the more famously remembered elections of the 1970s for election nerds, the high point for Democrats in that decade would actually come two years later, just narrowly, with a single-seat gain in the House on the coattails of Jimmy Carter's election to President as a more conservative answer to the country's call for a Democratic President after the Watergate scandal and subsequent loss of respect for President Nixon during the Ford years as the party stumbled its way to try and find what sort of party it wanted to be after the stunning loss of the far leftier (than Carter) McGovern in 1972. The 1976 House elections would show the last full strength of the Democratic post-New Deal coalition of minority and working-class white voters, with it being the last in which any one party won a veto-proof majority in the House. The Watergate Babies of 1974 were still playing a major role in this election as well, and the result would help create the modern Democratic Party those of us in the United States know today. This election would also mark the retirement of House Majority Leader Carl Albert and the rise of famed Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, who held the position from 1977-1987 as the Speaker with the most years served in a row and the third-longest serving Speaker overall.

1982 House of Representatives Elections




In 1980, Reaganism and its effect on the electorate got its biggest effect yet as the country was much changed from the place it had been six years before. The 1980 House elections had brought Republicans into striking distance of a House majority for the first time in 30 years, but Reagan's early polarization brought trouble and it was a struggle for Republicans going into the election. In addition, "boll weevil" Democrats in the south who would vote alongside the President who was popular with constituents on certain issues were able to campaign on those votes to retain seats that might have otherwise been lost, limiting how many districts the Republicans could plausibly win, particularly in a midterm year. Finally, a recession 1982 only further brought stress to freshman Republicans in newly-won seats, and many of those who had risen on the coattails of Reagan in 1980 would not make it past 1982 as Democrats carried themselves to a comfortable majority and the highest point in the 1980s—though the low point following 1982 would not again get quite as close as the low point of 1980. Notably, no less than 3 candidates for President were elected as freshmen in 1982, and 1 of them past the primary: John McCain (R-AZ), John Kasich (R-OH), and Bill Richardson (D-NM).

1990 House of Representatives Elections



The 1990 House elections, the highest point of what would prove to be a very tumultuous decade for the Democratic Party, was one that was ultimately defined less by the election itself and more by what it meant for what came after. The successful ability for Democrats to hold onto the House of Representatives, in large part thanks to favorable maps drawn in 1981 that by 1990 had produced many barely-competitive or noncompetitive races, allowed them to hold Bush to favorable agenda while also winning many other elections in that midterm such as control of state governments across important states like Texas and Florida. This would result in some of the most infamous gerrymandering yet seen in American politics as Democrats would redraw districts to hold onto as many districts in the south as they possibly could, and result in several court-ordered redistrictings and being stretched thinly enough for a breakdown of the Post-New Deal Coalition all together in 1994. In addition, 1990 would result in Republicans pressing for more enforcement of the Voting Rights Act in alliance with minority groups to force Democrats to draw more majority-minority districts, preventing the common practice of spreading minorities out to combine them with Democratic whites across the south for more pro-Democratic districts. 1990, thus, was a minor election with far larger consequences for the future. One other notable mention is the election of Bernie Sanders to Vermont's At-Large district as the first non-Republican and non-Democrat elected to Congress in decades (though followed during the 90s by several others) and the first non-Republican to hold the seat since 1958's election. The seat has not since been held by a Republican.

2008 House of Representatives Elections



Following a difficult decade in the wilderness for the Democratic Party following the 1994 losses, the party had managed to come back into a majority in the 2006 midterms under President George Bush under a myriad of issues including scandals, political corruption, and opposition to the ongoing War in Iraq and War in Afghanistan. Then, by 2008, the economic fortunes of the United States had collapsed into what would become nicknamed as the "Great Recession" and the President's once-meteoric approval ratings were the lowest of virtually any modern President. Thus, the high point of the Democratic Party, which had just 6 years before managed to lose a midterm in one of the few times it has been done, would occur in 2008. Though the Republican Party was not without gains of its own due to continued shifts in the electorates of both parties, the further 21 net gains of the Democrats in this election put the Democrats just 1 seat behind where they had been after the 1992 elections 16 years before on the election of Bill Clinton. The elections coincided with the election of Barack Obama, Senator from Illinois, and Democrats rode his coattails in his Midwestern gains in states such as Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois. For the first time since the Antebellum period, Republicans held no seats in New England and for the first time in decades Democrats held most (or all) of the seats in the western states of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada. Similarly, this was a first high point in which Democrats reached a large majority while still losing a majority of House seats in Texas and also managed to win only 1 seat in Louisiana. This alignment would continue in force into the 2010s to this day.

2012 House of Representatives Elections


Thus far in the 2010s, 2012 has remained the high point for Democrats in this decade. Though not a majority in the House, it is the last time that Democrats gained over 200 seats and the last time the Democrats won the popular vote (though through a plurality and not actual majority). This was the election in which Democrats once again riding on the coattails of a hoped-for Obama wave had to contend with a high number of incumbent Republicans recently elected following the Tea Party wave in 2010 and redistricting drawn after the 2010 US Census that was later ruled in a handful of states to favor Republicans (not that Democrats have not done the exact same thing when given the chance, as I have pointed out, mind). The result was ultimately mixed, with Democrats retaining some tricky seats such as West Virginia's 3rd Congressional District and New York's 21st Congressional District in the far north of the state (won by a Democrat as the 23rd in a special election in 2009 that saw the area of the district fall to a non-Republican for the first time since 1873) while losing others. Democrats for the second time won every single district in New England, a feat which as of this writing on October 1, 2018, has not been repeated. Ultimately, Democrats gained 8 seats and fell 17 short of a majority while holding onto the Presidency and gaining 2 seats in the Senate.

For those of us now, a little more than a month out of the 2018 elections, this remains the largest Democratic high of the past decade. Will it be broken? Will Democrats finally gain a majority this decade? Will the Trump coalition and the record-high voter enthusiasm prove too hard a shore for the blue wave to crash against? Only time will tell. Until then, this is what we have, and I hope you all enjoyed this project of mine. If Democrats do indeed break this record (to do so they will need to gain 8 seats), I will make an overly-detailed midterm map and post it after the elections. If not...I'll probably still post a map because it's a trending topic these days. Take care, all, and remember to vote! Oh, and a bonus...

1992 House of Representatives Elections



This map is more of a bonus thing, just to show the beast created in response to winning the 1990 midterms and the advent of computer technology to gerrymandering. Democrats took every advantage they had from 1990 to hold onto as many seats as they could and created what are to this day some of the nastiest gerrymanders one could see, particularly in Texas where infamously the district boundaries could go down to neighborhood level (or so I was told, growing up there). The election coincided with the "Year of Women" and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton's election to the Presidency, but the enforcement of the VRA on redistricting and the counters by Republican-held states with districts of their own as well as the lack of an overwhelming victory by Clinton at the popular vote level helped lead to an overall lose of seats for Democrats, which would help set up the anger and popular discontent to sow the seeds for the Republican Revolution in 1994 that would so radically change American politics to this day.

Citations

Jeffrey B. Lewis, Brandon DeVine, Lincoln Pitcher, and Kenneth C. Martis. (2013) Digital Boundary Definitions of United States Congressional Districts, 1789-2012. Retrieved from http://cdmaps.polisci.ucla.edu on 2 September, 2018.

Oreskes, Michael. “The 1990 Elections: The Future - Redistricting; Elections Strengthen Hand of Democrats In '91 Redistricting.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Nov. 1990, www.nytimes.com/1990/11/08/us/1990-elections-future-redistricting-elections-strengthen-hand-democrats-91.html.

Other information retrieved from http://www.en.wikipedia.org and https://www.ourcampaigns.com/  on 2 September, 2018 through 1 October, 2018.

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