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Could Manchin Actually Leave The Democratic Party?

Sen. Joe Manchin told reporters Wednesday that suggestions he would leave the Democratic Party were “bullshit” with a “capital B.” He’d previously told Democratic leaders that he’d consider becoming an independent if they felt it would help them explain to the public why the party was having such a hard time coming to an agreement on its social spending plans, but he denied that he’d made threats about leaving the party.

But what if Manchin did leave the Democratic Party? 

A Manchin exit would undoubtedly scramble the status quo — Democrats control the Senate only because of Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote — and it could even give Republicans control if Manchin caucused with them. But considering Manchin is often at loggerheads with his party, it’s not that wild an idea that he might abandon the Democrats and run as an independent in deep red West Virginia. After all, the move might make electoral sense for him if he decides to run again in 2024. But at the same time, if Manchin did switch parties, it would, more likely than not, mean an immediate loss of clout for him in Congress, which is perhaps the biggest reason Manchin is likely to stay put. 

For starters, party switches are actually rare. Since 1951, just 34 sitting members of Congress have switched parties (four did so twice, for a total of 38 switches). And as the table below shows, most members who switched parties still ran for reelection or another office after changing their partisan stripes.

Few senators or representatives have flipped parties

Sitting members of Congress who switched parties, since 1951

Ran again?*
Member State Chamber Party switch Switch Year Ran Won
Wayne Morse OR Senate R to I 1952
OR Senate I to D 1955
Vincent Dellay NJ House R to D 1958
Strom Thurmond SC Senate D to R 1964
Albert Watson** SC House D to R 1965
Harry Byrd Jr. VA Senate D to I 1970
Ogden Reid NY House R to D 1972
Don Riegle MI House R to D 1973
John Jarman OK House D to R 1975
Bob Stump AZ House D to R 1981
Eugene Atkinson PA House D to R 1981
Phil Gramm** TX House D to R 1983
Andy Ireland FL House D to R 1984
Bill Grant FL House D to R 1989
Tommy Robinson AR House D to R 1989
Richard Shelby AL Senate D to R 1994
Ben N. Campbell CO Senate D to R 1995
Nathan Deal GA House D to R 1995
Greg Laughlin TX House D to R 1995
Billy Tauzin LA House D to R 1995
Mike Parker MS House D to R 1995
Jimmy Hayes LA House D to R 1995
Bob Smith NH Senate R to I 1999
NH Senate I to R 1999
Michael Forbes NY House R to D 1999
Virgil Goode VA House D to I 2000
Matthew Martinez† CA House D to R 2000
Jim Jeffords VT Senate R to I 2001
Virgil Goode VA House I to R 2002
Ralph Hall TX House D to R 2004
Rodney Alexander LA House D to R 2004
Joe Lieberman CT Senate D to I 2006
Arlen Specter PA Senate R to D 2009
Parker Griffith AL House D to R 2009
Justin Amash MI House R to I 2019
MI House I to L 2020
Jeff Van Drew NJ House D to R 2020
Paul Mitchell† MI House R to I 2020

The chart includes members who switched parties while in Congress. It excludes members who switched parties while out of office but later returned to Congress, as well as members who were elected under a different party label but immediately joined or rejoined one of the two major parties in Congress.

*Includes members who ran for reelection or new offices.

**Watson and Gramm resigned from their seats and won ensuing special elections under their new party’s banner to fill their own vacancy in the same Congress.

†Martinez and Mitchell switched parties after they were already leaving Congress. Martinez became a Republican after losing his primary as a Democrat, while Mitchell didn’t seek reelection and left the GOP three weeks before the start of the next Congress.

Sources: ANTOINE YOSHINAKA, BIOGRAPHICAL DIRECTORY OF THE U.S. CONGRESS

Electoral calculations seem to have guided many of these members’ decisions to change parties, too. In his study of party switchers, political scientist Antoine Yoshinaka found that members were more likely to switch parties when they represented areas where their old party performed poorly — though they were most likely to switch if they intended on seeking a higher office in the future. However, troublingly for Manchin, Yoshinaka didn’t find that these switches necessarily paid off. In fact, he found party-switchers performed 4 to 9 percentage points worse in their next general election than non-switchers between 1952 and 2010. 

That said, Manchin might be better off if he left the Democratic Party and ran as an independent. It will just be really hard for Manchin to win otherwise. Only Wyoming voted more Republican than West Virginia in the 2020 presidential election. And despite a blue wave in the 2018 midterm elections, Manchin won reelection by his slimmest margin yet — about 3 points. Moreover, running as a Republican isn’t really an option for Manchin. It’s true that he scores well among Republican voters in West Virginia — a Morning Consult poll recently found 44 percent approved of him — but he would undoubtedly have a challenging time winning a GOP primary, having voted to impeach former President Donald Trump in February.

Two people look over a map of the current South Carolina Senate districts.

Americans Don’t Trust Their Congressional Maps To Be Drawn Fairly. Can Anything Change That? Read more. »

So there’s clearly some appeal for Manchin to run as an independent, as he would avoid having to run in a GOP primary while also shedding the national Democratic Party label that’s become toxic to many West Virginians. But this formula is no guarantee of success, as it could easily be upset if a more liberal Democrat ran as the Democratic standard-bearer and garnered a decent chunk of the Democratic vote, likely ensuring a GOP victory.

Yet while one can make a fairly convincing electoral case for why Manchin should consider switching parties, it’s most likely he’ll stay where he is considering the enormous amount of leverage he has. He essentially can veto any proposal he disagrees with while also working within his party to adjust legislation to better reflect what he wants. And because Democrats have full control of government, he’s more likely to get laws passed that are agreeable to him. 

Granted, if Manchin were part of a 51-member Republican caucus, he would wield a similar amount of veto power. But outside of that, it’s unlikely he would be as influential as he is right now. He’d likely lose his post as chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, a politically advantageous position for a senator from a state deeply invested in the coal industry. And he’d also be unlikely to influence the trajectory of GOP legislation in the way he does as a longstanding member of the Democratic caucus.

It’s possible Manchin could leave the Democratic Party while continuing to caucus with it and retain his chairmanship, but a public separation from his party would also strain relationships Manchin has spent years building. At home, for instance, Democratic activists might choose to work against Manchin by backing a more liberal challenger despite the difficulty such a candidate would have in winning. Meanwhile, in Washington, a switch could damage Manchin’s trustworthiness with his Senate colleagues and hinder future cooperation with them.


Can you guess what Americans think about the Democrats’ spending bill?

All this sounds like a much greater headache than using his current position to get more of what he wants. Moreover, when push comes to shove, leaving the party you’ve belonged to for years is simply very hard to do. Manchin has said that his stances on taxes and health care would make it difficult for him to join the GOP, and he’s pushed back on the idea of leaving the Democratic Party many times over the past few years.

Long story short, Manchin could switch parties, but it’s unlikely that he will. And in the end, the main result of the party-switching storyline is yet another news clip of Manchin distancing himself from his party, which demonstrates his independence to voters in deep-red West Virginia.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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