Vote iQ Hot Topics: The 2010 Elections
Midterm elections have historically been bad for the political party of the incumbent president. Since 1950, the party of the president has consistently lost seats in both the House and the Senate in all but two midterm, or off-year, elections. Some years the losses are relatively minor, as with Kennedy in 1962 or Reagan in 1986. However, some midterm elections have produced catastrophic losses. The figure below shows the average losses for the president’s party over time. The blue line shows the losses in the House and the red line shows the losses in the Senate. In the case of the House, the president’s party loses about 23 seats, whereas about 3 seats in the Senate switch hands.
NOTE: Figures represent the loss of seats by the political party of the president in a given year.
While there are a lot of factors involved, historical circumstances are typically at the root of the pattern in this chart. Harry Truman’s handling of the war in Korea led him to lose a sizeable chunk of seats in 1950. A bad recession in 1958 caused Dwight Eisenhower’s Republicans to lose nearly 50 seats in the House. Lyndon Johnson, the man who had won in a landslide against Barry Goldwater in 1964, lost nearly 50 seats in the House in 1966. This was mostly due to a backlash against his policies on civil rights and the expansion of the federal welfare state.
In one of the two most famous midterm elections, Richard Nixon lost a great number of seats in the 1974 midterm elections in the aftermath of Watergate. (Democats who win in 1974 were referred to as “Watergate babies”.) Midterms over the next two decades were relatively quiet, though a rough economy did cause Reagan to lose some seats in the House in 1982.
The most famous midterm election cycle in the past 50 years occurred in 1994. Two years earlier, Bill Clinton had edged George Bush and Ross Perot to put the presidency in Democratic hands for the first time in 12 years. With both chambers of Congress and the presidency under unified Democratic control, Clinton successfully raised marginal tax rates (reversing the Reagan era trend) and sought to reform healthcare. Facing an enormous backlash from various medical organizations and conservative action groups, Clinton was forced to back down.
Despite backing down, it appears the damage was done. An energetic Republican minority leader named Newt Gingrich had been vigorously building Republican grassroots groups and raising funds for several years prior to the midterms. Clinton’s aborted attempt at healthcare reform gave him the edge he needed. Gathering together with a large number of Republican lawmakers and candidates, Gingrich put forth a “Contract with America,” identifying a core set of reforms the Republicans would enact if elected. While few pundits believed the Republicans were capable of taking back the House for the first time since the 1950s, they ultimately did. The Republicans claimed 54 seats in the House on Election Day. Senate Republicans picked up 8, thus giving the Republican Party control of both chambers for the first time in over 40 years.
The midterm elections of 1998 and 2002 stand in contrast to the historical trend. Clinton actually made gains in the Senate in 1998. George W. Bush made slight gains in both chambers in 2002. Again, circumstances seem to be at play. Republican attempts to impeach Clinton seemed to backfire, costing them in the 1998 cycle. In 2002, Bush vigorously campaigned on the need for strong, Republican leadership in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. His strategy worked and helped Republicans keep control of Congress.
The midterm elections of 2006 saw a return to the historical trend. Facing a stagnant situation in Iraq and plummeting approval ratings, George W. Bush’s Republicans lost well above the average number of seats in midterms and, with it, the control of the House. While the Republicans lost significantly in the Senate, too, their losses were not enough to give Democrats “filibuster-proof” control of the Senate. This goal would be achieved by further gains in Obama’s 2008 general election victory.
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