With Republicans in firm control of both houses of the Michigan Legislature as well as the governor’s office, Democrats may be wondering whether they can regain power in the state anytime soon. Surprisingly, history suggests that the best thing they could do to advance their cause would be to help elect a Republican president.
Why should Democrats help Donald Trump and Republicans help Hillary Clinton? It turns out that there is a clear pattern: your party gains in the state when it first loses the presidential election. When Democrats win the presidency, Republicans tend to gain—and vice versa.
Under Barack Obama, Republicans have won two gubernatorial elections and gained seats in both chambers of the Michigan Legislature. The party out of the presidency tends to do especially well in midterm elections like 2010 and 2014, when the president is not on the ballot but the opposition party has incentives to mobilize against them. This is part of a consistent pattern in Michigan, visible in the table below. Since the 1930s, the party that holds the presidency has lost 17 Michigan midterm gubernatorial elections and only won four. The average win for the president’s party was narrow (1.7%) whereas the average loss for the president’s party was a landslide (13.3%). The party out of the presidency also gains seats in the Michigan Legislature, with an average seat change of +8 in the House and +2 in the Senate.
Michigan’s results mirror national trends, but are often accentuated due to the state’s closely divided electorate. Across all states since 1900, the president’s party has won only 43% of midterm gubernatorial elections. Under Bill Clinton, the Democrats lost a net ten governorships; under George W. Bush, they gained seven, only to lose nine under Barack Obama. After two Obama administrations, Democrats are in full control of only 7 states, having lost 22% of their state legislative seats nationwide.
Michigan’s history shows only a few exceptions that prove the rule. The only time the party in the presidency has won a Michigan gubernatorial election since the 1970s was Republican John Engler’s narrow (<1%) victory in 1990. Republican William Milliken did win two narrow elections under Republican presidents, but the Democrats gained legislative seats each time. The only other instance of a midterm victory by the party in the presidency was by Democrat G. Mennen Williams in 1950; he won by only 0.1% and Republicans still gained seats in both chambers that year.
Michigan’s fourth Constitution extended the term of the governor to four years, from two-year terms, after 1966. Before then, governors had to run in the presidential election year as well. Our constitutional framers, whether intended or not, created a pendulum between national and state politics by selecting a midterm election date: when the nation swings left, Michigan swings right.
Why would voters select a president from one party only to turn around and help the other party two years later? The first reason is that a different (and smaller) electorate shows up to vote. The presidential year brings a surge of voters supporting the winner that seldom return two years later. The party out of power has more reason to show up next time because people tend to overvalue losses compared to gains. The second reason is that presidents usually succeed in forwarding their agenda: Democrats enact more liberal policies and Republicans enact more conservative policies. Since the public tends to be in the middle of the two parties, it tends to react thermostatically, saying “too hot” when the Democrats move policy too far to the left and “too cold” when the Republicans move it too far to the right. Public opinion grows more conservative under Democratic presidents, thereby helping Republicans.
It may seem odd that people judge the president’s performance in voting for governor or state legislature. But most voters choose to support one party for major offices, meaning all Republicans benefit when more Republicans show up to vote and when voters oppose the Democratic president’s agenda. That means Democrats hoping for a Michigan victory in 2018 should hope for a Republican president. The path to victory runs through presidential defeat.