Obama and Reverse Coattail Effect


It was early December 2007 when New York Times chief Washington correspondent Carl Hulse suggested that Hillary Clinton’s “Ready for Change, Ready to Lead” presidential campaign may be costing Democrats precious seats.

Locked in a close presidential primary once thought hers to lose, Clinton’s brand of liberalism was widely believed to be sending red-state and other vulnerable party candidates running for their political lives.

Hulse cited the example of incumbent congresswoman Nancy Boyda (D-Kan.) – one among many Dems that managed to squeak out close midterm victories, only to be confronted two years later by potent media blitzes linking them to Clinton.

Some upper chamber Democratic seats were no safer: Louisiana’s centrist Mary Landrieu was likewise pilloried with ads portraying her as a free-spending Clinton clone, weak on defense and wrong on the social issues. Eleven months and major party funding later, Landrieu survived. Boyda lost by five points. As is often the case when candidates vying for their party’s top nomination have a tepid approval/disapproval ratio, many pundits saddled Clinton with some of the blame for purple-district letdowns.

This phenomenon known as the reverse coattail effect – the drag weak or embattled officials are believed to place upon their party’s candidates – was manna from above as Obama strategists proclaimed Clinton a toxic presence, especially in tightly contested races.

In another of those American political ironies, the reverse coattail effect may be at work again; this time here in the Sunshine State and related to the very guy who not so long ago capitalized on Hilary Clinton’s negative baggage. Seems that after a solid summer, many of Florida’s top Democratic candidates are polling downward in more or less direct relationship with the Obama freefall. Because of the star power (and early vitriol) surrounding the state’s 2014 gubernatorial race, Democratic candidate Charlie Crist’s flagging numbers have been seized upon as proof positive that the president will be a liability should Crist get a shot at Republican incumbent Rick Scott.

But perhaps the more accurate read in a state where Obama has racked up a 57% disapproval rate is the March special election to succeed the late congressman Bill Young in Florida’s 13th District. When seasoned Democrat Alex Sink declared for the seat in mid-October she was the odds on favorite.

She’d logged successful stints in high state office and ran a strong campaign against Rick Scott, losing the 2010 governor’s race by a scant percentage point.

And Sink entered the fray with a respectable war chest and serviceable infrastructure left over from the gubernatorial campaign. With the Republicans mired in the government shutdown poll-plunger of their own, Sink’s timing seemed spot on. Then hell broke loose in cyberspace as the serpentine HealthCare.gov became the impetus for a Republican resurgence that could not come at a worse time for Sink’s party, let alone a special election just a few months away.

Which brings us to a once again halting president. Some of the editorials following the 2010 election parsed Sink’s narrow defeat, drawing a straight line from her otherwise focused campaign to Obama’s woes, calling it a referendum on a man whose name appeared nowhere on the ballot.

Alex Sink is a blue candidate trying to swipe a red seat in a purple state. And the last thing she needs to see is a pair of coattails that look a lot like the last time.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Tarpon Springs, Fla. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2014


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