Sabato's Crystal Ball

Obama’s Approval Rating and the Outlook for the 2016 Presidential Election

Alan I. Abramowitz, Senior Columnist, Sabato's Crystal Ball January 22nd, 2015

With the 2014 midterm election in the rearview mirror, the attention of pundits and political prognosticators has quickly shifted to the outlook for the 2016 presidential election. On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State, First Lady, and U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton appears to be the prohibitive favorite to emerge as the nominee. On the Republican side, however, there is no clear frontrunner, and early maneuvering by prospective candidates has intensified with the announcement by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush that he is seriously considering a run for the White House. In addition to Bush, several prominent current and former Republican officeholders have already signaled their interest in running, including 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

While the identities of the 2016 Democratic and Republican candidates will not be known for more than a year, one thing that is already known is that there will not be an incumbent in the race because President Barack Obama will be completing his second term in the White House. Even though he will not be on the ballot, however, evidence from past open-seat presidential contests indicates that the public’s evaluation of Obama’s performance in office will have a substantial impact on the outcome of the election.

Figure 1 displays the relationship between the incumbent president’s approval rating in the final Gallup Poll before the election and the share of the major-party vote won by the candidate of the president’s party in the six open-seat elections since World War II: 1952, 1960, 1968, 1988, 2000, and 2008. The line shown on this graph is the regression line for predicting the incumbent party vote share from the incumbent president’s approval rating.

Figure 1: Vote for incumbent party candidate by incumbent president’s approval rating in open-seat presidential elections since World War II

Sources: Gallup and Dave Leip’s Election Atlas

Despite the small number of open-seat elections, a clear pattern emerges from the data: The fate of the incumbent party’s candidate is strongly influenced by the popularity of the outgoing president. In fact, the incumbent president’s approval rating explains over half of the variance in the vote share of his party’s nominee. All three candidates seeking to succeed presidents with approval ratings below 50% were defeated, and the two seeking to succeed presidents with approval ratings below 40% were decisively defeated. In contrast, two of the three candidates seeking to succeed presidents with approval ratings above 50% won the popular vote, although one of those candidates, Al Gore in 2000, ended up losing the electoral vote.

The data in Figure 1 indicate that while the incumbent president’s approval rating has a clear influence on the outcomes of open-seat presidential elections, the results are also influenced by the candidates and their campaigns. These factors almost certainly explain why the points for the 1952 and 1988 elections are far below and far above the regression line respectively. In 1952, Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson was handicapped not only by a Democratic president, Harry Truman, with a 33% approval rating, but a Republican opponent, Dwight Eisenhower, who was a national hero after serving as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II. In contrast, the Republican nominee in 1988, Vice President George H.W. Bush, was aided not only by President Reagan’s 51% approval rating but by a Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who ran what many political observers consider one of the most inept campaigns in modern presidential history.


While the outcome of the 2016 presidential election will depend on the popularity of the Democratic and Republican candidates and the quality of their campaigns, evidence from recent open seat elections indicates that the public’s evaluation of Obama’s performance will also have a substantial influence on the results. From that standpoint, the president’s rising approval rating in recent polls is good news for Hillary Clinton or whomever the Democratic Party eventually chooses as its nominee.

Table 1: Predicted Democratic share of major-party vote in 2016 by Obama approval rating prior to election

Source: Data compiled by author

In the three most recent weekly averages of the Gallup daily tracking poll, the president’s approval rating has stood at 46%. This represents an increase of about three points from his average approval rating over the previous several months. Other recent national polls have found a similar increase in Obama’s popularity, most likely reflecting improving economic conditions. The data in Table 1 show that based on the results of the six open-seat presidential elections since World War II, an increase of three points in the incumbent’s approval rating can be expected to increase his party’s vote share by about half a percentage point.

The data in Table 1 suggest that barring a dramatic change in President Obama’s approval rating in the next two years, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election is likely to be very close. If the president’s approval rating remains below 50% in the fall of 2016, the Republican nominee should be a slight favorite; if the president’s approval rating is above 50% by the fall of 2016, the Democratic nominee should be a slight favorite. However, the results of recent open-seat races also indicate that candidates and campaigns matter: The prediction of a close election could be upset if either party nominates an unusually appealing or unappealing candidate or runs an exceptionally effective or inept campaign.

The Search for a Slogan

What Hillary, Jeb, Rand, and the rest could learn from the history of campaign catchphrases

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics January 22nd, 2015

U.Va. Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato is contributing a regular column to Politico Magazine. This week, he discusses the history of campaign slogans and what past examples could teach 2016 contenders. This article originally appeared in Politico Magazine on Jan. 19, 2015.

After the column appeared Monday, we solicited slogan suggestions via e-mail and Twitter. Here are some of the best ones, all tongue-in-cheek:

For Mitt Romney: “The Third Time Is a Charm.” — @Libslady. John Cassidy of The New Yorker had a similar slogan for Romney, and added this for Jeb Bush: “Third Bush Is a Charm.”

Rick Moore had another Bush suggestion: “Because It’s My Turn.”

For Hillary Clinton: “It’s the Same Old Song.” — Don Lovett

For Chris Christie: “A Bridge to Prosperity.” — Michael Markus

For any potential GOP candidate: “Things Go Better with Koch.” — Estefan Zorrow

For any candidate not named Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton: “None of My Relatives Have Ever Been President.” — Dave Bethke

We received many devilishly clever and funny submissions, for which we thank our tweeps and readers, but alas, most were a bit too harsh or obscene to meet the Crystal Ball’s publishing standards.

The Editors

With the dawn of the new year, the campaigns for president are moving into high gear, at least in private. Strategies are being fine-tuned, consultants and staff are being hired, donors are choosing sides. But no campaign ought to ignore the crucial element of a good slogan.

Oh, the superficiality of it all! That’s what the sophisticates say. Yet a well-chosen phrase can power a candidate if the words ring true and connect to the theme of the election. Slogans are simplistic and manufactured, but the best ones fire up the troops and live on in history.

Even candidates as well-known as Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush can benefit from a defining catchphrase. The last time she ran for president, then-Sen. Clinton used “The Strength and Experience to Bring Real Change.” That was workmanlike — and boring. At least for the ’16 Democratic contest, she’d be better off with “Let’s Make History Again” coupled with the Helen Reddy tune “I Am Woman.” Don’t forget, about 57% of Democratic presidential primary voters are women. For the general election, if President Barack Obama continues his recent climb in the polls, Clinton might adopt “Keep a Good Thing Going” or — to drive Republicans nuts — she might steal the 1982 Ronald Reagan midterm mantra, “Stay the Course.” If Obama’s popularity nosedives again, Hillary might want to revamp Bill Clinton’s 1992 anthem from Fleetwood Mac: “Don’t Stop Thinking About the Nineties.”

As for Jeb, he might want to try out “Not My Brother’s Keeper” — at least subliminally. He truly needs to be more Jeb than Bush as he attempts to achieve a historically unprecedented family three-peat. The word “conservative” needs to be prominent, given that so many voters in the GOP base think he isn’t. Terms to be avoided at all costs: immigration, common, and core.

More ideological candidates probably have an advantage in sloganeering because they can use hot-button terms with less risk. Should Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren challenge Clinton in the Democratic primary, her slogan writes itself: “Main Street, Not Wall Street.” If she wants to be bolder, there’s the tried-and-true “Keep the Big Boys Honest,” which was a favorite of populists from Virginia to Washington state in the 1960s and ’70s. (“Boys” is sexist, perhaps, but a woman could get away with it, especially considering that a large majority of Wall Street moguls are male.)

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s anti-interventionist foreign policy might lead him to “America First!” Of course, he’d have to distinguish his more nuanced views from those of the America First Committee, which formed in 1940 to keep the United States out of World War II and had 800,000 dues-paying members (including two future presidents, John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford). The committee was disbanded three days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

If outsiders could write a few whimsical slogans for the contenders, we might pick “Never Give Up,” should Mitt Romney follow through on his musings and run for a third time. Like so many politicians before him, Romney proves that the only cure for White House fever is a cozy underground pine cabin.

For the blunt-spoken New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, “Sit Down and Shut up” would be the gubernatorial quote of choice. Those watchwords would certainly be wiser than “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or, even worse, “Join America’s Team” — though it might help Christie in Texas.

Ex-Sen. Jim Webb would certainly prefer his old standby, “Born Fighting,” which also publicizes one of his books. Still, “I hate politics as much as you do” would suit Webb better, and perhaps have more appeal to a cynical public.

Frivolity aside, the candidates’ teams will undoubtedly do much better in rolling out their mottos as the year progresses. Political slogans aren’t normally copyrighted or trademarked, so they might possibly want to borrow something successful from America’s past.

Presidential sloganeering started inauspiciously with the Whigs’ “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” in 1840. Old Tippecanoe, William Henry Harrison, died after a month in the White House, leaving almost the entire term to the slogan’s afterthought, John Tyler.

Slogans got wordier and somewhat more obscure. One of America’s worst presidents, Franklin Pierce, ran in 1852 on “We Polked you in ’44, we shall Pierce you in ’52.” Like Pierce, President James K. Polk was a Democrat — but one who left a much more significant record of accomplishments than Pierce.

The most durable presidential campaign slogan of the 19th century was Abraham Lincoln’s, in his 1864 reelection. “Don’t swap horses in midstream” was also used by his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1944 to argue against changing commanders in chief while a war was ongoing.

Lincoln’s successor plus one, Union commanding general Ulysses S. Grant, didn’t hesitate to capitalize on his leadership in the Civil War: “Vote as You Shot” was his 1868 slogan. Four years later, his reelection slogan was a more peaceful word play, “Grant Us Another Term.”

President William McKinley did even better in his 1900 reelection campaign with this gem: “Let Well Enough Alone.” Isn’t that the implicit message every White House incumbent sends if he serves in a time of prosperity? Voters prefer the devil they know unless conditions force them to change.

Slogans must be read literally. When Woodrow Wilson sought reelection in 1916, “He Kept Us Out of War” was appropriately stated in the past tense; by April 1917, after continued German submarine attacks on American ships, the United States plunged headlong into the Great War.

Wilson’s GOP successor, Warren Harding, invented a word with his pledge of a “Return to Normalcy.” Postwar, Americans knew what he meant and sent him to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in a landslide. When Harding died in 1923 amid the sea of corruption that was his administration, new President Calvin Coolidge was able to use prosperity to fly above the roiling waters. “Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge” was the perfect catchphrase for a low-key, stand-pat chief executive.

Good times continued just long enough for Herbert Hoover to make it three in a row for Republicans in 1928. “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” sounded good to the electorate. In a year, with the onset of the Great Depression, Americans began to discover that the chicken had no meat and the car had to be sold so they could eat.

Happy Days Are Here Again” may seem off-key at a time of massive unemployment and hunger, but what people most wanted from Franklin D. Roosevelt was hope for better times. Few were buying President Hoover’s 1932 slogan, “We are turning the corner”; most had realized that around Hoover’s corner was another corner.

Aside from FDR’s song, the cleverest refrain of the 1930s came from a man who might have been a formidable presidential candidate had he not been assassinated in 1935, Louisiana Sen. Huey Long. “Every Man a King” gave promise that “you can be a millionaire” with the mandate “share the wealth.” Now there’s a song for Sens. Warren or Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent-cum-socialist, to adopt!

One of the most remarkable developments in U.S. political history was the voters’ 1940 decision to ignore the two-term tradition for presidents. Yet in very uncertain times, and with memories of Hoover still fresh for millions, FDR was able to surmount a vigorous challenge from the GOP’s Wendell Willkie. Most of Willkie’s effort was centered on Roosevelt, with attack slogans such as “No Third Term,” the prescient “No Fourth Term Either” and “There’s No Indispensable Man.” While Roosevelt fell from the stratospheric marks he set in the popular vote in 1932 (57%) and 1936 (61%), he still won with nearly 55% in 1940.

Harry Truman had two well-known campaign aids in 1948. “Give ’em hell, Harry” was contributed by a fan who yelled it during a Truman whistle-stop train event. (The citizen-inventor is apparently unknown; he deserved at least an ambassadorship.) Then there was the song “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” which actually was a Eubie Blake melody from the early 1920s. Truman’s opponent, Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York, gave voters nothing of note in the slogan department (although in his 1944 run for the White House, Dewey used “Dewey or Don’t We?”). It was left to Teddy Roosevelt’s outspoken daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, to define Dewey down as “the little man on the wedding cake.”

In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower used a slogan and song, “I like Ike,” to magnify his pleasant smile and demeanor (he was much gruffer in private). Come 1956, the campaign decided not to mess with success, so the phrase became, “I still like Ike.” Television magnified the jingle’s impact, and old-timers still recall the cartoon elephants prancing around on the little screen as a chorus sang, “You like Ike, I like Ike, everybody likes Ike!” In response, poet Marya Mannes was moved to write “Sales Campaign,” which read in part, “Philip Morris, Lucky Strike, Alka-Seltzer, I like Ike.”

Surprisingly, the glamour candidate of the century, John F. Kennedy, had no memorable slogan (“A New Leader for the ’60s” and “A Time for Greatness” don’t cut it). But who else could have had Frank Sinatra croon a special campaign version of the hit “High Hopes”: “Everyone wants to back Jack, Jack is on the right track!”

Four years later, the two major-party nominees both selected slogans that are easily recalled, partly because they backfired. “All the Way With LBJ” became an ironic post-election commentary on President Lyndon Johnson’s disastrous war in Vietnam. Barry Goldwater’s “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right” simply reinforced his unelectable positioning on the political far right.

Even more revealing was the contrast among the slogans in 1968. The inescapable issue was Vietnam, ergo Richard Nixon’s “This time, vote like your whole world depended on it.” The Nixon rally chant was “Nixon’s the One!” — another slogan that eventually backfired. During the Watergate scandal, as investigators tried to figure out who had orchestrated the cover-up, opponents would insist that Nixon, indeed, was the one.

At least Nixon had a slogan strategy. Hubert Humphrey, vice president under LBJ, was as confused on that front as he was about the Vietnam issue. HHH’s campaign floated from one bad idea to another: “Humphrey has the answers — now let’s give him the authority” and “There is no alternative.” Actually, there were two major alternatives, Nixon and the odious George Wallace, whose slogan, “Stand Up for America!” barely hid his real agenda: to roll back the clock on racial progress.

Nixon had it much easier in 1972, thanks mainly to the Democrats’ self-destruction with their nomination of too-liberal George McGovern. Quickly, McGovern was defined by the derogatory formulation “acid, amnesty, and abortion,” referring to the Democrat’s supposedly permissive attitude on drugs such as LSD, his policy on forgiving anti-Vietnam draft resisters and the social issue just becoming red-hot, abortion. Nixon skated to a massive reelection with the tag line “Now More Than Ever” and a catchy tune, “Nixon Now,” which made the famously uncool Nixon appear modish.

With Nixon’s 1974 departure, his unelected successor, Gerald Ford, had a giant mess to clean up. Ford’s 1976 slogan, “He’s Making Us Proud Again,” was an implicit comparison with Nixon. Meanwhile, Jimmy Carter was offering a variation on the much-used “Time for a Change” theme: “A Leader, for a Change.” The sentiment was just enough to get Carter into the White House.

Everyone remembers the foundation of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” — but, of course, those words didn’t take hold in the election until Reagan uttered them at his sole debate with President Carter a week before the election. This fundamental question has become a one-sentence summary of how Reagan won by 10 points. With peace and prosperity dominating the landscape four years later, Reagan got an even larger landslide with a magnificent feel-good ad declaring “It’s Morning Again in America.

Democrats finally resurged with Bill Clinton’s official slogan of “Putting People First” and the more powerful exclamation “It’s the economy, stupid!” Or maybe it was the snapback from President George H.W. Bush’s most famous utterance in 1988, “Read my lips, no new taxes,” a broken pledge that deeply divided the GOP. Four years on, President Clinton used the coming millennium to set his somewhat vague second-term goal, “Building a Bridge to the 21st Century.” Clinton won, but the slogan seemed to produce more jokes than votes.

It says something about 2000 and 2004 that neither election (Bush-Gore nor Bush-Kerry) produced any slogans that resonated. But 2008 made up for it. Barack Obama’s team churned out “change” memes at a furious pace: “Change We Can Believe In,” “The Change We Need,” and “Yes We Can.” John McCain was left with “Country First,” a sentiment most people admire but not a big vote-getter at a time of unpopular wars and deep recession. McCain handed the baton to Mitt Romney in 2012, but Romney’s slogan, “Believe in America,” was no better. President Obama simply said “Forward,” which was enough for 51% of Americans that cast a ballot.

What could 2016’s candidates do to improve on the past, or mimic the most effective themes of previous White House contenders? We’ll soon find out. Pay attention to every word; the maximum will be said in the fewest possible letters.

Harry Reid & The Senate Survivors

By some measures, Reid is the steeliest of them all

Geoffrey Skelley, Associate Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball January 15th, 2015

If history is any indication, it would be hard to pick against Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) if he runs for another term next year. His races are often close, but he has shown a remarkable amount of resilience over the years, frustrating Republican attempts to dislodge him. In fact, by some measures Reid has had a tougher time retaining his seat than any of the longest-serving senators during the century-long era of popular Senate elections. He is, in many ways, the heartiest of the “Senate survivors.”

In the Crystal Ball’s first batch of 2016 Senate ratings in December 2014, we identified Reid as probably the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in this Senate cycle. While we rate the contest as Leans Democratic, the prospect of a possible challenge from popular Gov. Brian Sandoval (R-NV) could seriously endanger Reid’s future in Congress’ upper chamber, and Reid’s weak approval ratings also make him potentially vulnerable to other, less heralded Republicans. It’s also possible that he will retire, although his heavy fundraising and public comments suggest that he’s running again. That said, Reid just suffered significant injuries in an exercising accident, and his wife and daughter have also had recent illnesses.

A close race would not be noteworthy for Reid. Just consider his 2010 reelection, when three-fourths of post-Labor Day polls found him trailing Republican challenger Sharron Angle. Proving that the overused maxim that “the only poll that matters is on Election Day” isn’t just for losers, Reid went on to win by nearly six points.

Reid has won five straight elections for Senate, starting in 1986. His average share of the vote in those contests was 52.1%. If we compare Reid to other senators who won at least five consecutive contests (including special elections), his mark is the lowest average percentage won by any qualifying senator. Reid also had the lowest median percentage (50.3%). Overall, as shown in Table 1 below, there are 72 senators who qualify for such a list, eight of whom later lost renomination or reelection. Note that this list does not include any losses before a senator was first elected to the Senate — after all, Reid narrowly lost in his first Senate race in 1974 to Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-NV).

Notes: “#” is the number of popular general elections, regular or special, that a senator ran in. Sen. Russell Long’s (D-LA) figures include his 1980 jungle primary result. *Denotes a senator who won at least five straight elections but lost reelection to end his career. “@” denotes a senator who won at least five straight elections but lost renomination in his party’s primary to end his career. ^Denotes the five senators who won at least five straight elections, but not in immediate succession due to retirement, resignation, or appointment to other office. Two of those senators, Alben Barkley (D-KY) and Hubert Humphrey (D-MN), exited the Senate upon becoming vice president but later won Senate elections to return. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) retired after three terms in 2001, but was a last-minute replacement on the Democratic ballot line in 2002; Lautenberg won that election and a subsequent one in 2008. In his 1986 campaign, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) pledged not to run for reelection if the federal budget deficit did not shrink; when it did not, Conrad did not seek reelection. But Sen. Quentin Burdick (D-ND) died in September 1992, necessitating a special election for North Dakota’s other seat in December 1992. Conrad won the special and three more elections after that. In 1954, Sen. Burnet Maybank (D-SC) died two months before he was up for reelection, and the state Democratic Party replaced Maybank on the ballot with state Sen. Edgar Brown. Strom Thurmond (D-SC) (who later became a Republican) challenged Brown in the general election as a write-in candidate, pledging that if he won, he would resign in 1956 to run in a special Democratic primary. Thurmond won the 1954 election, followed through on his pledge, and went on to win the 1956 special Democratic nomination and the special election (as well as seven more elections after 1956).

Remarkably, Reid has only won more than 51.0% of the vote once, cruising to victory with 61.1% in 2004. Otherwise, his percentages have been very low for a winner — 50.0% in 1986, 51.0% in 1992, 47.9% in 1998, and 50.3% in 2010. Granted, only one of those contests wound up being extremely close: In 1998, Reid defeated future Sen. John Ensign (R) by just 428 votes (0.1 points). But of the 72 senators in Table 1, Reid’s contests had the third-closest average race margin and the closest median race margin.

Like any list, this one has complicating factors. Most of the names at the bottom (i.e. those who won huge percentages, on average, throughout their careers) are Democratic senators who served during the age of the Old Solid South, when winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to election in November. Many of these senators faced little or no opposition in the general election.

Where a senator is or was from is an important variable because some of these senators came from states that are or have been frequently competitive at the two-party level, like Nevada, while others came from states that are or have been dominated by one party or the other. For example, during Reid’s Senate tenure, Nevada has been a fairly competitive two-party state. In fact, it’s been one of the more competitive states in the country at the presidential level. The Silver State finished in the top 10 states for closest margin in five of the seven presidential elections that have occurred while Reid has been a senator. Compare this to, say, Sen. Richard Russell (D-GA), the bottom name on the list. Throughout much of Russell’s time in the Senate (1933 to 1971), Georgia was a bedrock Democratic state like much of the Old South. Until 1964, the Peach State was regularly the most or one of the most Democratic states in each presidential election. In the 10 presidential elections that took place during Russell’s tenure, including his initial special election win in November 1932, Georgia was one of the 10 closest states just once, in Lyndon Johnson’s blowout 1964 win, when the Deep South went Republican (including Georgia) while most other states saw landslide wins for LBJ.

In Reid’s case, another issue is Nevada’s unique “None of These Candidates” ballot line, a part of Silver State elections since 1975. One could argue that this has artificially lowered Reid’s percentage by creating another vote-getter of sorts: The none-of-the-above choice has finished third in every one of Reid’s contests, ahead of any third-party and/or independent candidates. In other states, a voter has to hold his or her nose and vote for someone, if that person chooses to vote at all, but Nevadans can record their displeasure by literally voting for no one. If we remove the votes for “None of These Candidates” from each of his five contests, Reid’s average percentage grows slightly to 53.3%, placing him just behind Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) at 52.9% and Jesse Helms (R-NC) at 53.1%. Still, it’s difficult to say how the none-of-above-vote would have played out if the choice didn’t exist. Some of those voters would have chosen someone, but others might not have voted at all. Additionally, Reid’s median vote percentage would still be the lowest of this group (51.9%) if we exclude the none-of-the-above vote. So with the “None of These Candidates” caveat, Reid is the lowest average vote-getter among these 72 senators who won at least five consecutive elections.

Along with Reid, some other active senators also have relatively low average vote percentages in their five-or-more Senate contests. Reid’s successor as majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), places eighth at 55.2%. Recently retired Sens. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Carl Levin (D-MI) are 11th and 16th, respectively, while Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) ranks 12th. After McConnell, the next-highest sitting Republican is Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) at 19th, though his 58.8% average isn’t exactly low.

Besides Reid, six other senators averaged below 55% (regardless of how one counts Nevada): Sens. Lautenberg, Helms, Arlen Specter (R, D-PA), James Murray (D-MT), Key Pittman (D-NV), and Bob Packwood (R-OR).

Lautenberg decided against running for reelection in 2000 after three terms. But in 2002, the occupant of the Garden State’s other seat, Sen. Bob Torricelli (D), suddenly withdrew from seeking reelection after an ethics scandal damaged his candidacy, and the New Jersey Democratic Party replaced Torricelli with Lautenberg on the ballot. The Senate’s last World War II veteran, Lautenberg won in 2002 and again in 2008 before passing away in 2013. Now-Sen. Cory Booker (D) won the special election to fill the seat. Lautenberg’s final election win in 2008 proved to be his largest (56.0%), though Barack Obama’s sizable win at the top of the ticket probably helped. Otherwise, Lautenberg consistently won 50-53.9% of the vote in his other four wins.

Helms had an amazingly consistent electoral track record that reflected his polarizing nature. The Tar Heel senator never won more than 54.5% of the vote in any election — but he also never won less than 51.7%. In fact, besides Sens. Russell and Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith (D-SC), neither of whom ever faced real general election opposition, Helms’ percentage of the vote over the course of his five elections has the smallest standard deviation of any of these 72 senators (1.2%).

As for Murray, the New Dealer twice won by less than one point in 1942 and 1954 after first winning his Senate seat in a 1934 special election. Packwood, Pittman, and Specter are discussed below.

The fate of five-time consecutive winners

Given Reid’s relative vulnerability — Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) is the only other Democrat in a seat we rate Leans Democratic (the other current Democratic seats are all Safe) — it’s also worth noting what happened to senators who were positioned to try for a sixth consecutive popular election win. Chart 1 below lays out the fate of these 72 senators.

Note: Sen. Key Pittman (D-NV) is included in both the reelected and died in office categories. He was reelected in 1940 but died just after the election and prior to the start of the next term. Sen. Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith (D-SC) is included in both the lost primary and died in office categories. He lost renomination in 1944 but died before the end of his final term.

Of the 72 senators in question, six, including Reid, are active senators who could conceivably for try for a sixth straight win. Out of the remaining 66, 40 sought reelection and a sixth consecutive election victory. Of those, 36 successfully won another term, a 90% success rate. Again, history suggests Reid would be a decent bet if he runs again. Incumbency is and has always been a good predictor of electoral success.

By the way, of the four senators who lost while going for a sixth straight win, three lost in primaries while only one lost in the general election.

The most recent primary loser was Arlen Specter in 2010. Specter famously switched parties to give Democrats a short-lived 60 votes in the upper chamber, but lost renomination to then-Rep. Joe Sestak (D) in the Democratic primary. Sestak went on to lose narrowly to now-Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) but is itching for a rematch in 2016.

The other two primary losers were both Southern Democrats. One, Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-AR), is remembered for, among other things, the fellowship program bearing his name that provides merit-based educational grants for international exchanges. But Fulbright’s criticism of American involvement in the Vietnam War opened him up to attacks from conservative Democrats, and he lost renomination in 1974 to Arkansas Gov. Dale Bumpers. The other primary loser was the aforementioned “Cotton Ed” Smith, who had one of the more memorable nicknames in politics. In 1944, Smith was technically seeking a seventh straight election win, having first been elected by the state legislature in 1908. But as this piece is focusing only on popular elections, it considers Smith’s tenure from his first such win in 1914. A virulent white supremacist, Smith ensured himself a long career in good part by fanning the flames of hatred in the Palmetto State — Time once said Smith was a “conscientious objector to the 20th century.” However, Smith’s age and his opponent, South Carolina Gov. Olin Johnston, got the better of him in the 1944 Democratic primary. In fact, Smith would die just 10 days after the November election, prior to finishing out his final term.

The lone general election loser among senators who could have won a sixth straight election was Sen. William Roth (R-DE), who lost to then-Gov. Tom Carper (D) in 2000. Carper took advantage of presidential coattails (Al Gore won Delaware by 13 points) in an increasingly Democratic state to defeat Roth by 12 points.

Of the remaining 26 senators, 14 opted to retire. As for the other 12, three resigned, one upon being appointed to another office (current Secretary of State John Kerry). In the summer of 1996, having sewn up the Republican nomination for president, Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS) resigned his Senate seat, saying that he had “nowhere to go but the White House or home.” The other senator who resigned was Bob Packwood. Allegations of sexual abuse and assault against Packwood led the Senate Ethics Committee to recommend that he be expelled from the Senate. Packwood resigned before that happened, effective Oct. 1, 1995, and current Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) won the special election to fill the seat.

The other nine senators all died in office, though this list actually grows to 11 if we include the aforementioned Smith as well as Key Pittman, who is included in the “reelected” category. Pittman is in many ways the most interesting case in this group, particularly as one of Harry Reid’s Silver State forbears. First elected in a very close 1912 popular special election, actually one year before the ratification of the 17th Amendment, Pittman won his sixth consecutive election on Nov. 5, 1940. However, his campaign had hidden the serious effects of a heart attack the incumbent suffered just days before the election, which came in the midst of a bacchanalia at the Riverside Hotel in Reno. Pittman wound up dying on Nov. 10, 1940, just five days after the election. This outcome allowed the Democratic governor to appoint a replacement, keeping the seat in Democratic hands until at least 1942, when a special election would occur. A lurid myth developed around Pittman’s reelection and death, with the claim he had actually died before the election and that his friends kept his body in a bathtub filled with ice in order to keep Pittman’s GOP opponent from winning by default. It’s only a myth, but it’s not completely incredible as tales go; after all, this is Nevada we’re talking about. Perhaps what happens in Reno, stays iced in Reno.


The age of popular elections for U.S. Senate stretches back to the early 20th century, and in that time, no senator who has won at least five consecutive Senate elections has done so with less support than Harry Reid. Some might interpret this as a slight on his record as a senator, but in our view, Reid’s longevity is made more impressive by his record of winning in mostly close contests in a state with healthy two-party competition. There are 71 other senators who have won at least five straight elections, but Reid’s record arguably makes him the greatest of the Senate survivors.