The presidency’s midterm nightmare

Paul Liben Contributor
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In his recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, President Obama concluded with a fervent plea for the liberal Democratic base to turn out in a big way for November’s midterm election.

The president’s angst is understandable. Polls consistently show GOP enthusiasm outstripping that of the Democrats nationwide. That alone bodes ill for Obama’s party. Surveys on individual races across the country provide further fuel for his concern. The Democrats risk losing the House and maybe the Senate as well.

Unfortunately for Obama, there is little he can do to affect the outcome. That, at least, is the verdict of history. Over the past 17 midterm elections, going back to 1942, the president’s party has lost an average of 28 seats in the House and 4 in the Senate.

For any presidential administration, midterm elections are scary enough to keep its strategists awake at night.

In the 1946 midterms, for example, President Harry Truman saw his Democrats surrender 54 House seats and 12 seats in the Senate. In 1958, it was the Republicans’ turn to be massacred. America liked Ike, but that didn’t stop President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s party from relinquishing 48 seats in the House and another 12 seats in the Senate.

In the 1966 midterm elections, President Lyndon Johnson, who had won a landslide victory just two years earlier, watched the Republicans gain 48 House seats and 3 Senate seats. In the 1974 midterms, President Ford’s party lost 48 seats in the House and 4 seats in the Senate to the Democrats.

Then, of course, there was the 1994 landslide, where the Gingrich Republicans captured 54 seats in the House and 8 in the Senate while Bill Clinton was president.

The reason for this pattern is clear. Turnout is lower in midterm congressional elections than in presidential contests, and those who do show up in midterms tend to be animated by disapproval of the Oval Office’s occupant. That would typically be members of the opposition party’s base.

But, one might say, despite this pattern, presidents have nothing to lose in trying to cajole their base to come to the polls.

Actually, they do.

For America’s middle-of-the-road voters, who play an outsized role in presidential elections, watching presidents hurl red meat at their base isn’t a pretty sight. It’s a turnoff, plain and simple. It makes them less likely to vote for the president two years later.

In fact, some presidents worsen their party’s midterm prospects by veering far off center from the moment they assume office. President Clinton did so in 1993. President Obama seems to have followed suit since his inauguration last year. Clinton was re-elected only because he moved swiftly to the center after the November 1994 electoral disaster.

Thus, Obama would be ill-advised to try harder to influence November’s results. If the past is prologue, failure is a virtual certainty, and in the process of trying, he could further damage his own prospects for re-election by alienating moderates.

Meanwhile, one can only marvel at how America’s midterms have become an unintended corrective to our politics. No matter who’s in office, they provide a vital check on presidential power, delivering the firmest rebukes to the most ambitious and expansive administrations.

Paul Liben has worked in New York City and Washington, DC as a speechwriter for the past 15 years. He served as a speechwriter for New York Governor George Pataki and then as director of speechwriting for U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.  A published writer, he has written op-eds for more than 100 publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Times, Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer and Houston Chronicle.