Getting the Facts Straight About Midterm Elections

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

Updated 11-2-06

Usually in off-year elections the party holding the presidency loses seats in Congress. Why? This is mainly because in the midterm elections the weak candidates who rode in to victory on the coattails of their party's presidential candidate two years earlier find it difficult to win when running for election on their own.

In the 2002 off-year elections in George W. Bush's first term Republicans confounded many pundits by succeeding in adding to their majorities in both the House and the Senate.

Just how impressive was this victory? At the time there was considerable confusion about the historical dimensions of the Republican victory. Dick Morris said on TV that it was the greatest off-year election victory any president ever had. Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, told the press, "Not only have we kept the House, but we've gained seats. This is the first time since the Civil War." CNN, citing Fleischer's quote, reported "that for the first time in U.S. history the president's party gained seats in the House during the administration's first midterm elections." Newsweek's Howard Fineman on NBC gushed that Bush's victory "is just amazing." Fineman added: "The fact is it's not been since John F. Kennedy in 1962 and really going all the way back to Teddy Roosevelt where a sitting president's party has done as well as the Republicans did with George Bush. It really is historic."

Who was right? Were any of these people right? Almost any channel you turned on pundits were drawing different historical parallels. And almost always they made mistakes, though few noticed. Here are the facts: Since the Civil War and Reconstruction, three presidents have scored off-year victories in Congress: FDR, Bill Clinton and now George W. Bush. FDR's victory was the greatest. It was particularly impressive because it followed on the heels of his landslide victory in 1932, which was accompanied by the gain of 90 seats in the House and 13 in the Senate. One would have expected many of these members, swept in on Roosevelt's coattails, to be vulnerable the next election, as usually occurs. Yet this did not happen. The freshmen elected in 1932 kept their jobs and a new class of Democratic freshmen joined them.



Democrats Gain
9 Seats

Democrats Gain
9 Seats



Democrats Gain
5 Seats

Democrats Gain
0 Seats



Republicans Gain
4 Seats

Republicans Gain
2 Seats


Howard Fineman raised a parallel with Kennedy. Kennedy's record was mixed. While his party gained 2 seats in the Senate, it lost 5 seats in the House. Hence, Kennedy was not in the league of FDR, Clinton or Bush. Bush far outdid Kennedy.

Fineman also mentioned Teddy Roosevelt. So did a lot of others, claiming that Bush's victory in 2002 was comparable to TR's in 1902, exactly 100 years earlier. In Media Land, this is a killer fact. (A) It rhymes (2002 and 1902). (B) It is based on the Rule of Hundreds (any anniversary of 100 years is significant). And (C) it reinforces the association of Bush and other popular Republican presidents. Thus, Brian Wilson on Fox News reported: "You have to go back to Teddy Roosevelt, 100 years ago, to find another case where a sitting Republican president did well in the House during a midterm election." Even the Associated Press highlighted the comparison of 2002 and 1902: "Since Abraham Lincoln was president, the party holding the White House has lost House seats in every midterm election except three - 1902, 1934 and 1998."

The comparison of 2002 with 1902 was based on a misreading of the tables you find in the backs of books about presidents. At first glance it appears from the charts that during his first term TR's party gained 11 seats in the off-year election of 1902. In 1900 the party won 197 seats in the House; two years later, in 1902, 208. (208-197=11). The comparison overlooks the fact that while there were more Republicans there were also more Democrats, owing to an expansion in the size of Congress. (Every decade from 1850 to 1900 the House grew in size to keep up with population growth and the admission of new states.) Keeping that in mind, the 1902 election actually marked a slight decline in the fortunes of the Republican Party. In 1900 the Republicans had a 46 seat House majority (or about 57 percent). Two years later that majority shrank to 30 (54 percent). The Senate remained the same. Not bad, as off-year contests usually go, but nothing to brag about. And by no means was that election comparable with the one we just witnessed.

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Max J. Skidmore - 11/13/2006

Wrong. McKinley (note spelling) died--and Theodore Roosevelt became president--on 14 September 1901. That was more than a year prior to the off-year elections, and off-year elections are the subject of the article.

True, the date of McKinley's death was roughly a century before the 9/11 attacks, but that is hardly significant.

The media are not the sole sources of erroneous information (nor are political figures such as the ineffable Dick Morris).

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 11/4/2006

Obviously, I meant 1938.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 11/4/2006

F. D. Roosevelt lost seats bigtime in the sixth year of his presidency, 1968, and also in the 10th year, 1942.

clarence swinney - 3/2/2003

Dick Morris--"Gop will pick up 25-40 Seats in the House in a recent election"--sorry dick. lost sets.

dan - 2/25/2003

Leno/Letterman are no less accurate than, and probably more accurate than, Rush/Mike/etc.

Randall Besch - 11/13/2002

Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting does an excellent job of catching errors both in reportage and historical when such contextes are usually abscent or misrepresented.

g.l.burns - 11/11/2002

The media gets historical facts wrong on a regular basis. Why is there no watchdog group - othr than wishy-washy CNN's Reliable Sources - to set the record straight? People vote based on data they learn mostly on TV - unfortuately - and too many times their information comes from Leno/Letterman - a joke source. No wonder we have the candidates offered up today. No self-respecting, intelligent citizen will run for public office because they will be Clintonized - and the media will never set it right - historically or factually.

Bud Wood - 11/9/2002

It is said that what you don't know won't hurt you. Sometimes it will. But more importantly, what you "know" that is really incorrect will usually hurt.
In that consideration, do the typical news disseminators usually cause hurt? Seems that comments about the Republican "sweep" again show that's usually the case.

Judd - 11/8/2002

I imagine you've covered this already, but an incredible TR parallel is the "9/11" experience of 100 years ago. President McCinley as assasinated a few days before, died a few days after Sept 11, 1902