The “coattail effect” is a phenomenon whereby a political candidate or leader’s popularity leads to improved vote totals for fellow party candidates further down the ballot.
A coattail refers to a part of the coat extending below the waist that provides extra coverage. The coattail effect or the alternate phrase “riding on someone’s coattails” is a relatively recent entrant into the political lexicon. The concept’s origins are murky though U.S. Rep. Abraham Lincoln’s 1848 speech discussing General Zachary Taylor’s “coattails” seems to be the first notable use.
In this speech, Lincoln highlighted Democratic Party hypocrisy in their critiques of Whigs hiding under presidential nominee Taylor’s “military coat-tail.” The future president pointed to two decades of Democratic hiding under Andrew Jackson’s coattail as evidence of this hypocrisy. Lincoln’s use of coattail refers more to a presidential candidate providing cover for fellow party members rather than a rising political tide lifting all boats.
The Google Books Ngram Viewer points to the recency of the coattail effect’s use in political literature. In a search of all books from 1800 to 2008, there are no mentions of this phrase until 1947. There is a spike in the term’s use by 1957, which peaked by 1996.
The presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton illustrate positive and negative coattail effects. Eisenhower was a popular figure following his role in Allied victory in World War II. This popularity and his reluctance to political power contributed to his election in 1952 and Republican control of the House and the Senate.
Reagan’s appeal to conservative Democrats and Republicans helped him win the presidency in 1980. Republicans regained the Senate for the first time since Eisenhower’s first term due to the down-ballot effects of Reagan’s election.
Clinton emerged from a three-candidate race in 1992 with a Democratic Congress. After two years of an embattled presidency, Republicans retook the House and Senate by offering a Contract with America to counter what they viewed as presidential overreach on healthcare. Clinton’s struggles weighed heavily on Democratic congressional candidates.
Recent studies have raised questions about the power of the coattail effect. The University of Virginia Center for Politics published a report in 2011 that highlighted inconsistencies in a president’s impact on congressional races. Political scientist Robert Erikson’s 2016 study of the coattail effect found that Democratic votes for Congress fluctuate for both presidential popularity and evaluations of the likelihood of Democratic victory.
Fox 5 Atlanta (February 7, 2020): “Biden argued that he’s the only Democratic candidate who’d have a coattail effect for Senate candidates in battleground states and GOP-leaning states like North Carolina and Georgia.”
The Hill (June 18, 2016): “‘They’re whistling past the graveyard,’ said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, when asked about GOP skepticism of a presidential coattail effect in 2016.”
The New York Times (October 17, 1982): “But a poll by The New York Times indicates that the coattail effect is weak, with supporters of one Democrat often planning to vote a split ticket, and vote against the other candidate.”