Midterm malaise

J.T. Young Former Treasury Department and OMB Official
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So Obama is going to see his party lose congressional seats in November? The only shock would be if he didn’t. This blasé observation has nothing to do with current polls but past trends. Only one Democratic president in the past century has not lost congressional seats in his first midterm election. What is surprising is the left’s failure to point out this fact.

Midterm congressional losses by the president’s party are the norm, and the norm by a wide margin. The House of Representatives is the better congressional barometer of this. Unlike the Senate, where only a third of its seats are reelected every two years, all 435 House seats are. This gives a nationwide canvas of the American electorate.

Beginning in 1910, 17 administrations have faced a first congressional election where the president was not on the ballot. These first midterm elections have resulted in the President’s party losing seats on 15 occasions.

The average Democratic loss in these circumstances has been 32.1 seats in the House and 1.4 seats in the Senate. The average Republican loss has been strikingly similar—an average loss of 29.5 House seats and 3.5 Senate seats.

These drops as a percentage of their overall seats are also very close. The average percentage loss for Democrats in a first midterm election is 11.9 percent of their House seats and 2.3 percent of their Senate seats. The average percentage loss for Republicans is 12.7 percent of their House seats and 6.3 percent of their Senate seats.

Why the losses in these first midterms? American elections are like the tides. They have an ebb and flow. In contrast to the common perception of the effect of party switchers, elections are generally determined by one side’s decreased participation among its rank-and-file—an ebb—and an increased participation among the other side’s partisans—the flow.

Presidential election years further accentuate this by drawing more voters to the polls. Thus the winning presidential party experiences a relatively large surge. However, in the midterm election, the turnout falls from the previously heightened “presidential level” to a lower congressional one.

Without the president on the ticket, his party base suffers a demobilization—overall participation drops and some of his base is no longer motivated to vote. The effect is just the opposite for the opposition party. Having seen its base been not as motivated by its presidential candidate two years earlier, it now sees many return without that candidate on the ticket.

The exceptions to the first midterm losses prove the rule. They also show what it takes to swim against the electoral tide. One Democrat and one Republican have managed to gain seats in their first midterm over the past 100 years. Both barely did so.

FDR did it in 1934, gaining nine House seats and 10 Senate seats. Bush did it in 2002, gaining eight House seats and one Senate seat. FDR’s feat was accomplished during the depths of the Great Depression. Bush’s happened just over a year after 9/11.

In light of these clear facts, why the consternation now over Obama’s coming November? And why particularly among the left?

First there is the absolute loss of seats. If Democrats suffered the average percentage decline (not including FDR’s 1934 bump), they would have 217 House seats in the next Congress—one shy of the majority. In the Senate they would lose three seats—falling to 56 seats, well below the 60 needed to prevent filibusters.

Certainly loss of control—in actual terms in the House, and perhaps in effective terms in the Senate—is not to be taken lightly. Yet, it has happened—in fact, four times in the House during the past century.

Is there something more to the left’s seeming disinterest to spin an apparent November loss? Could it be the sense of squandered opportunity? Is it simply too painful for liberals to contemplate the loss of an opportunity in which they had such high hopes?

Perhaps there is an even more painful point. The question of what caused it. None of the answers can be pleasant for the left.

For now, November is something the left just ignores. But just for the moment. They whistle past the graveyard, hoping against hope that historical precedents won’t repeat and current polls simply aren’t prophetic.

The author served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 -2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987-2000.