With the House readying an impeachment vote for President Trump, and Watergate analogies everywhere, it seems worthwhile to revisit a piece I wrote in August 2018. In it, I used historical data to show that in the modern era, national waves which favor the Democratic Party don’t typically wash ashore in Indiana. But that came with an important caveat: “…[R]ecent Democratic waves that upended Washington – with the exception of the Watergate-fueled wave in 1974 – haven’t translated to Indianapolis.”
This raises the question: If the Trump impeachment proceedings play out like the Nixon proceedings, what does history tell us to expect in 2020? Well, the past can be a good guide for understanding where the present might be taking us, but only in a probabilistic sense. We can’t use it to predict what’s going to happen in 2020, but we can take a closer look at 1974 to understand exactly how the impeachment proceedings and resignation of Nixon impacted Indiana elections. That might tell us how likely we are to be heading towards a similar scenario, or at least what it would take to come close to recreating it here. We’ll start with the big picture, and then drill down into individual races.
Unlike 2020, 1974 was a midterm election year. We know that midterms tend to be bad for the party that controls the White House (especially in second terms, as 1974 was). Usually, the president’s party loses seats in Congress, and it’s not a coincidence that five of the seven national waves we’ve seen in the past 50 years have been in midterm election years (1974, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2010). For various reasons, presidential election years are less susceptible to waves, and tend to happen only when there is an overwhelming sense that America is headed in the wrong direction (1980 and 2008).
On the flip side, when there is an overwhelming sense that America is headed on the right track, the President’s party often makes some gains down ballot, but not enough to be classified as a wave. That’s what happened in 1972, when Nixon won the presidency in a landslide. Nationally, his coattails saw Republicans pick up 12 seats in the U.S. House. In Indiana, Republicans picked up a Congressional seat, won every statewide race by at least 10 points, and netted 19 seats in the Indiana House to give them a 73-27 supermajority (there was no change in the Senate, which remained a 29-21 Republican advantage).
But while that might look similar to the results of more recent Hoosier elections, Indiana in that era was far more competitive and volatile than it has been of late. For instance: Democrats had supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly from 1964-1966, and then Republicans accomplished the same feat from 1968-1970. In 1970, Democrats won the Secretary of State (against an incumbent), State Auditor (against an incumbent), and State Treasurer races by a margin of about 51%-49% in each.
That all helps set the stage to understand exactly what happened in the Hoosier state in 1974. The Democratic incumbents held on to those three statewide offices they picked up in 1970, winning each with about 54% of the vote–a 3% improvement on the Democratic totals, or a 6% growth in the margin of victory. Since these seats are useful for measuring baseline party support, it gives us our first indication of the size of the Watergate bump.
Birch Bayh wasn’t on the ballot in 1970, but for the sake of comparison his nearly 51% in 1974 is right in the middle of his roughly 50% effort in 1962 and roughly 52% in 1968. He faced a strong opponent in popular Indianapolis Mayor Dick Lugar, which may have washed out any Watergate-related bump for Bayh. While not giving us a hard number, it at least indicates the Watergate bump was relatively small.
Congressional results are a little tougher to compare at the individual race level, because districts were redrawn in 1971. But statewide in 1970, Democrats captured 51% of the votes in all Congressional races, and increased that number by 2% to 53% in 1972%, very close to the statewide race impact.
When we look at the five Congressional seats that Republicans lost, three of the races were decided by 6% or less. In other words: Without the 6% statewide margin of victory growth for Democrats we noted earlier, Republicans might have kept those three seats.
The only two Republican-held seats that fell outside that margin had direct ties to Watergate. One was David Dennis, who was the only Hoosier to cast a vote on the impeachment questions as a member of the Judiciary Committee. He voted not to impeach Nixon on the Committee vote, and lost to Phil Sharp in the 10th District by nearly 9%.
The other was Earl Landgrebe, who lost the 2nd District race by 22% to Floyd Fithian after he became a national laughingstock, and the poster child for intransigent support of Nixon. When asked by the media for his reaction to the release of the “smoking gun” tape that proved Nixon had lied about his involvement in Watergate, Landgrebe replied, “Don’t confuse me with the facts. I’ve got a closed mind. I will not vote for impeachment. I’m going to stick with my president even if he and I have to be taken out of this building and shot.” The drubbing he received is at least the electoral equivalent of being dragged out of the building.
The Congressional races, then, seem to add more weight to the idea that the Watergate bump was worth about a 3% increase in generic Democratic totals. Given this modest impact, it isn’t too surprising that Democrats picked up two seats in the Indiana Senate. What might be surprising, though, is that Democrats still picked up 28 seats in the Indiana House on such a small bump.
But this makes sense when you consider where this analysis started: The state was more competitive and volatile in that era, and Republicans had just won 19 seats on Nixon’s coattails the election prior. Most of those 19 were won on narrow margins, and the shift in 1974 (small as it may have been) helped Democrats win back most of them—often on similarly narrow margins. On a net-basis, that leaves 9 additional seats the Democrats won in 1974, which is probably closer to expectations given the size of the shift.
So what does it all mean for 2020? Let’s assume that 2020 is a worst-case scenario for Republicans that resembles Watergate and the wave that comes along with it. We’ll ignore statewide races for a few reasons: There is no U.S. Senate race on the ballot; the Superintendent of Public Instruction is no longer on the ballot; the Attorney General’s race could hinge on its own dynamics pending a State Bar Disciplinary Commission ruling; and the protracted nature of the 2016 gubernatorial race probably skewed the numbers, so we’ll just posit that the 2020 race for governor could be very competitive in this scenario without trying to quantify it.
Let’s start with the 6% margin of victory growth Democrats saw in 1974. In 2016, Democrats got about 39-40% statewide in Congressional, Indiana Senate, and Indiana House races. There was one Indiana Senate race Republicans won by less than 6%, so that is a clear pickup opportunity here. But beyond that, we probably wouldn’t expect Democrats to add further gains in the Indiana Senate, nor from Congressional or Indiana House seats. Speaking to the idea that Indiana isn’t as competitive as it was in 1974, the next closest Indiana Senate race in 2016 was about an 18% margin for Republicans, and the closest Congressional race was about 14%. There were closer Indiana House races in 2016, but Democrats already won those seats in 2018 and can’t add to their net-gain by winning them again in 2020.
Let’s expand the math a bit then, because races that sat just outside that 6% margin will likely become competitive. We’ll assume anything between 6% and 10% in 2016 is up for grabs. That puts three additional Indiana House seats into the mix, but no Indiana Senate or Congressional seats. Winning all of those would be enough for Democrats to bust up the House Republican supermajority, and not much more.
Let’s expand some more: In 2018, Democrats saw their statewide totals in Congressional and Indiana House races increase to 44-45%, a 12% increase in their statewide margins (I’m ignoring Indiana Senate races since it was a different set of districts on the ballot in 2018, and Democrats actually saw a 12% decline in their statewide margins there). While some of that is likely due to midterm dynamics, we’ll assume they are trends that will hold. If we deem any races that had a 12% margin or less in 2016 or 2018 to be competitive in 2020, and if we put all of them in the Democratic win column, then Democrats would have total gains of one Congressional seat, one Indiana Senate seat, and eight Indiana House seats. You might have two or three additional Congressional seats, and two to five Indiana House seats, that would appear to be more competitive, but we’ve had to really expand our math to get here. And even then, Republicans would still have at least 54 seats in the Indiana House and 39 in the Indiana Senate.
The point of all this isn’t to say that Indiana Republicans are in good shape no matter what happens. Instead, it suggests that the impact of Watergate in Indiana has been misunderstood. Had Republicans not picked up 19 Indiana House seats in 1972, it’s possible that 1974 would have seen another national Democratic wave miss Indiana. Or, 1-2% more for Republican candidates statewide in 1974, and Democrats might have only won 2 or 3 Congressional seats instead of 5. The point is the Watergate bump itself was small in Indiana, but that small bump had a huge impact because of the underlying fundamentals.
Those fundamentals are largely absent in 2020. It would take a different sort of shift than Watergate’s to produce Democratic gains big enough to create a wave in Indiana. In order for down ballot Democrats to come close to the 50%+ they received statewide in 1970 and 1974, it would probably require a Democratic presidential candidate winning the state with a majority of the vote. That hasn’t happened at all since 1964, and hasn’t happened with a Republican incumbent on the ballot since 1932. In addition to having strong coattails, they would also probably need an environment with depressed Republican turnout, which doesn’t appear to have happened in 1974 to the degree most people think it did (or, for that matter, in 2008 when Barack Obama carried the state).
In short, history tells us that if there is a national wave for Democrats in 2020 its size would have to be unprecedented for the modern era—even bigger than Watergate—to look like a wave in Indiana. But again, history is only a probabilistic guide. It can’t tell us what will happen—and no matter how long the odds are today, unprecedented doesn’t mean impossible.