Ronald Reagan was said to have them in 1984. So was Barack Obama in 2008. But political coattails — the idea that the popularity of a candidate at the top of the ballot can pull down-ballot candidates to victory — might be only slightly more real than the Loch Ness monster.
“Was Reagan the reason six new Republican congressman got elected in Texas in 1984?” asks doubtful Republican pollster Mike Baselice. “The wind was at their backs. I think it’s a lot more about the pendulum swinging for a whole party, not one candidate at the top pulling everybody across the finish line.”
Presidential candidates aren't the only ones credited with coattails. Ever since Houston Mayor Bill White, a Democrat, entered the governor’s race, Democratic consultant Glenn Smith has noticed the mood change in Texas’ down-ballot Democrats heading into 2010. “It’s improved,” Smith says. “They are excited.”
Newsweek already — shockingly prematurely — predicted that White would turn the governor’s mansion blue in November. Conventional wisdom might suggest that, were that the case, he might pull down-ballot candidates in close races up just enough to secure victory.
The evidence does not bear this out.
Just one example of the lack of a party connection comes from 1994, when popular Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison won her first full Senate term with nearly 61 percent of the vote. George W. Bush raked in 53 percent of the vote to become governor. Below them, fellow Republican Tex Lazar didn’t even get 39 percent — a significant drop — as he lost to Bob Bullock for lieutenant governor.
Even having the wind at your back is no guarantee. In that same year, as Republicans enjoyed significant victories around the country, Democrats won nine of the 11 Texas House races decided by less than a 10-percentage-point margin.
In 1998, Rick Perry’s campaign strategy for the lieutenant governor’s race was largely tied to Gov. George W. Bush’s re-election bid. Bush won with over 68 percent, while Perry —with just over 50 percent — only edged out Democrat John Sharp by 69,000 of 3.7 million votes cast.
Baselice worked on that campaign and learned an important lesson. “Never rely on what’s happening above you on the ballot,” he says. “You have to run your own campaign.”
Smith, on the other side of the aisle, is largely in agreement.
“Candidates win and lose on their own,” he says. Though, he allows that a strong top of the ticket doesn’t hurt. “Instead of the top of the ballot pulling candidates over the top, maybe look at it this way — it will help build a firmer foundation.”
Of White, he says, “He’s one of those guys that over-performs. That’s good news. He’s very popular in the biggest market in the state. The infrastructure is there. That’s all good news. Those things all point in the right direction.”
A good direction for White, at least. The top of the ticket may help clear a path, but it’s up to the candidates to walk it.
“It’s certainly an advantage compared to where we were before without a strong gubernatorial candidate,” says Democratic pollster James Aldrete. “White will have the resources to set an agenda.”
With the Republican campaign — at least during the current primary — largely aimed at the alleged missteps of the federal government in Washington, Aldrete says having a well-funded Democrat campaigning statewide allows the debate to “refocus on Texas.”
“When House candidates talk about state issues,” he says, “that message is going to be much more primed because of Bill White’s candidacy, and there’s going to be a lot more people informed about it, which makes a more difficult path for Republicans.”
Many — in fact, in Texas’ major urban areas, most — voters simply choose a straight party ticket, so the strength of that broad platform is important. Democrats, who have recently seen a sharp increase in straight-ticket voting, hope a strong gubernatorial candidate will break up the straight-ticket voting on the Republican side.
Of course, there’s no guarantee — or even likelihood —that just because individuals break away from their preferred parties in the governor’s race they will pay any closer attention to the races below it. And, like Baselice says, having the wind at your party’s back is “totally different” from benefitting from coattails.
And the wind in the Democratic sails — already weaker in Texas than nationally —has tempered a bit since 2008 with pushback against federal healthcare reform and bank bailouts.
Races really come down to more specific qualities. “Candidates have to communicate their own message and contrast themselves with their opponent,” Baselice says.
Because of the way post-game analysis is often done in this business, even if House candidates are successful on their own merits — if they happen to have the same party designation as a leading statewide candidate, they will likely have to defer some of the credit.
“My real objection to the idea of coattails,” says Smith, “is that there is very complex causality in politics. Too often, people oversimplify what happens in a given year. The coattail theory is one of those oversimplifications.”
In fact, says Smith, anyone placing bets on coattails is doomed for failure.
“You can’t plan on coattails, or you’re going to lose,” he says. “You can’t turn over to some magical force what you’ve got to be doing yourself. Any Democrat who says, ‘Bill White’s on the ballot, so I’m going to check off 3 points,' is committing a terrible blunder."