Mostly True
Dowd
Says President Barack Obama "has lost more members of the House and more members of the Senate than any president ever has lost" in modern times.

Matthew Dowd on Sunday, December 7th, 2014 in comments on ABC's "This Week"

Has President Obama 'lost' more Democratic seats in Congress than other modern presidents?

Matthew Dowd claimed, "President Obama has demonstrated he’s very good at winning his own elections. But in modern times, he has lost more members of the House and more members of the Senate than any president ever has lost."

The Democrats took their final drubbing of the 2014 midterm election Dec. 6 with the decisive defeat of Sen. Mary Landrieu in the Louisiana Senate runoff. The election of U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy means Republicans will hold 54 seats in the new Senate.

Assessing the Democratic plight, one-time Republican consultant turned news analyst Matthew Dowd said President Barack Obama had overseen historic losses for his party.

"President Obama has demonstrated he’s very good at winning his own elections," Dowd said on ABC’s This Week on Dec. 7, 2014. "But in modern times, he has lost more members of the House and more members of the Senate than any president ever has lost."

We asked Dowd what he meant by modern times and he told PunditFact he was thinking of post-World War II. We went to the congressional records to see how this president and his party stack up compared to past administrations.

We decided to look at how many seats for the own president's party, be it Democrat or Republican, shifted during each president's time in office. 

We ran the numbers two ways. In the first approach, we looked at the electoral impact of a president who was running on his record. This meant we ignored party shifts in the year he was first elected because at that point he had no presidential track record. This meant that for two-term presidents, we summed the changes for the first midterm, the re-election, and the second midterm. We scored single-term presidents for just one midterm.

In the second approach, we allowed for a presidential coattail effect. If the president’s name was on the ballot, we counted any party shifts, including those in the year he was first elected. So for all presidents, we summed the changes from his first election to his last midterm.

We treated Presidents Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford a little differently because they took office when their president died or resigned. We counted their first election, if they won, as a case of running on their record and added in any shifts in the balance of congressional party power.

Here’s what we came up with.

President

President's party shift in Congress (Without first election)

President's party shift in Congress (Including first election)

Franklin Roosevelt (D)

-71 seats

+38 seat

Harry Truman (D)

-17 seats

-17 seats

Dwight Eisenhower (R)

-83 seats

-60 seats

John F. Kennedy (D)

-2 seats

-22 seats

Lyndon Johnson (D)

-14 seats

-14 seats

Richard Nixon (R)

-1 seats

11 seats

Gerald Ford (R)

-54 seats

-54 seats

Jimmy Carter (D)

-16 seats

-16 seats

Ronald Reagan (R)

-24 seats

+24 seats

George H.W. Bush (R)

-7 seats

-10 seats

Bill Clinton (D)

-59 seats

-67 seats

George W. Bush (R)

-18 seats

-26 seats

Barack Obama (D)

-85 seats

-52 seats

 

The table makes it clear that the first election makes a big difference. Without it, Dowd is correct, though just narrowly. Obama saw his party lose a total of 85 seats between the House and the Senate in the course of three elections. Interestingly, President Dwight Eisenhower runs a close second with 83 fewer Republicans. These are net numbers so ground lost in one election could be made up in the next. For Eisenhower, 1958 was the worst year. For Obama, it was 2010.

However, when we include every year when the president’s name appeared on the ballot, the ranking shifts. Obama first took office in a wave election that cost Republicans quite a bit. When we run the numbers this way, President Bill Clinton comes in as first among losers, followed by Eisenhower and Ford. Obama takes fourth place.

To viewers, it wasn’t clear what yardstick Dowd was using. While he noted that Obama was good at winning his own elections, he didn’t specifically set a timeframe for measuring how the balance of power in Congress has shifted over time. We think both measures are largely valid. One argument for giving more weight to the first approach is Dowd was talking about the effect that presidents have on their party. Until you win election, you aren’t president, and the gains or losses in your first election shouldn’t count.

We should also highlight that no president deserves full credit or blame for party gains or losses. To say that Obama has lost members of his party in Congress is not to say that he alone made that happen.

(A technical note: We used the official party counts by the House of Representatives and the Senate. They record the numbers at the start of each Congress. If members die, resign or switch parties during their term, we don’t include those changes. Also, we did not include independents or members of other parties who would then choose to caucus with one of the major parties.)

Our ruling

Dowd said Obama has lost more seats held by his party in the House and Senate than any modern president. By one valid measure, Dowd is correct. By another measure, Obama would rank fourth.

That, however, does not make Dowd’s claim inaccurate. It just means that it needs clarification and some additional information.

That meets our definition of Mostly True.