Republican nominee Donald Trump handily defeated Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in a surprise blowout Tuesday, but the results shouldn’t have surprised everyone because of a little-known presidential theory.
Trump was not favored to win by any stretch of the imagination. Political statistician Nate Silver only gave the Republican nominee roughly a 30 percent chance of winning the election, and the UVa Center for Politics predicted Clinton would earn well over 300 electoral votes.
Pundits arguably should have been able to predict a Trump win because of the presidential election cycle. Presidents have a history of carrying a majority in both the House and Senate for the first two years, but that lead down-ballot shrinks with each successive midterm. Since Reagan, with the exception of George H.W. Bush, every president followed this cycle.
After two years of what is essentially single-party rule, the lead is slowly reduced, until the opposing party takes power with a full chamber, starting the process over again.
UVa professor Larry Sabato discusses the cycle in his classes, and the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy published an article in 2014 discussing the “mid-term effect” on the presidential cycle.
President Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election with a majority in the U.S. Senate, but smaller numbers in the House of Representatives. Interestingly, Reagan gained members in the Senate and the House in the 1982 midterm elections.
By the time of the 1984 presidential elections, Reagan lost seats in the House, and lost two seats in the Senate.
George H.W. Bush is the exception to this rule; the single-term president won without a majority in either the House or the Senate, and the economy, combined with his broken promise not to increase taxes, helped to fuel the rise of President Bill Clinton.
Clinton won in 1992 with a strong majority in the Senate, as well as a significant lead in the House. By the end of the race in 1996, Republicans led drastic reversals in the Senate and House, earning stunning majorities in both chambers.
By the time George W. Bush came into office, the nation was ready for a change of pace, granting Bush slim majorities in the House and Senate.
The 2004 election actually solidified the Republican lead in the Senate and House, but Bush’s high favorable numbers after invading Iraq were enough to change the cycle.
President Barack Obama continued the cycle, earning stunning majorities in both chambers in 2008 that allowed the Democratic president to pass signature legislation like the Affordable Care Act.
The mid-term election of 2010 returned a Democratic Senate, but gave the lower chamber of Congress to the Republicans as a check on the President. The 2014 midterm race gave the Republicans firm control of both chambers of Congress.
President-elect Trump smashed all predictions and models in 2016 to claim the presidency by a huge margin. Although the Republicans lost two Senate seats and a few seats in the House, the majority in both chambers is unquestionably owned by the Party of Trump.
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