The political party flipping the White House has only made gains in the U.S. Senate in six of 11 cycles over the last century

The (so-called) Democratic Party establishment may have breathed a sigh of relief after Super Tuesday, now expecting the odds are much more favorable that their presidential nominee will be Joe Biden – the 2020 candidate many officeholders have said has a much better chance of elevating down-ballot nominees as the party attempts to hold the U.S. House and flip the U.S. Senate.

Democrats began the 2020 cycle in a much stronger position to make gains in the U.S. Senate, as the GOP is forced to defend nearly twice as many seats (23 versus 12).

Republicans are expected to shed some of these seats, possibly losing at least two of the seats on the ballot from states like Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, and North Carolina, while likely picking up a seat in Alabama. [Democrats need to net three seats to take control of the chamber if they win the presidential race].

But if Democrats are able to take back the White House, does that portend gains (let alone big gains) in the U.S. Senate?

Not necessarily.

Partisan control of the presidency has changed 11 times during the direct election era.

In only five of these cycles did the party flipping the White House make notable gains in the nation’s upper legislative chamber:

  • 1920 (Warren Harding): Republicans gained 10 seats, losing none
  • 1932 (Franklin Roosevelt): Democrats gained 11 seats, losing none
  • 1968 (Richard Nixon): Republicans gained seven seats, losing two
  • 1980 (Ronald Reagan): Republicans gained 12 seats, losing none
  • 2008 (Barack Obama): Democrats gained eight seats, losing none

In only one other cycle did the party taking back control of the presidency gain more seats in the U.S. Senate than it lost (1952, with the GOP picking up six seats but losing four).

Because only one-third of U.S. Senate seats are on the ballot in any given cycle, there is no guarantee that a change in partisan control of the presidency results in that party making any gains in the Senate, despite what happens at the top of the ticket.

For example, in two cycles, there was a draw:

  • 1976 (Jimmy Carter): Both parties gained seven seats
  • 1992 (Bill Clinton): Both parties gained two seats

And in three cycles the party flipping the White House lost more U.S. Senate seats than it won:

  • 1960 (John Kennedy): Republicans gained two seats, Democrats gained none
  • 2000 (George W. Bush): Democrats gained six seats, Republicans gained just two
  • 2016 (Donald Trump): Democrats gained two seats, Republicans gained none

While a draw seems plausible in 2020, the latter scenario seems unlikely if Democrats win the presidency with such a favorable U.S. Senate map this November.

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  1. Nikoli Orr on March 5, 2020 at 7:42 am

    1. 1932: Did the DEMs not lose one of their own, namely the CO seat to K Courtlandt Schuyler? (per a June 2019 report)

    2. 1960: the Rs ended up with gain of a single seat by the time Kennedy was sworn in, due to the passing of E K Thomson – and the ensuing ‘self-appointment’ to the seat by the DEM governor. The party’s actual gain was made by “Cale” Boggs, who would go on lose his 1972 re-election bid to a certain New Castle County councilor, who hopes to sweep in a new Senate majority for his party this cycle.

    3. “…make ‘notable’ gains…” An argument may be made that CONTROL of the chamber itself – with the scheduling of legislation, committee chairmenships, and whatnot – is way more noteworthy than NUMBER of net gains. Hence, the 1952 cycle is very ‘notable’ whereas the 1920, 1968, and 2008 cycles are not so ‘notable’ (of couse, the 1932 and 1980 cycles are indisputably the most noteworthy, even watershed indeed).

    • Dr. Eric Ostermeier on March 5, 2020 at 7:52 am

      RE: #1. That’s tricky as the seat didn’t flip control for the subsequent Congress as former Democratic US Senator Alva Adams won the seat that November for the full term.

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