There are two assertions about midterm elections that are endlessly recited with firm confidence. First, the president’s party almost always loses seats in Congress in midterm elections, and second, the fate of the president’s party is directly tied to his or her approval ratings. Yet there are rarely mentioned, but significant, caveats to these putative iron laws of politics.
The first is that aggregate numbers can be misleading. If you do the math, you find that in the last 21 midterms, the party holding the White House lost an average of 31 seats. But this is like saying the average wealth of Jeff Bezos and nine insolvent people is $10 billion. The “average midterm loss” conflates massive defeats with insignificant changes in the congressional landscape that left the president little or none the worse for wear—and in a few cases even improved his lot. And second, it obscures the fact there are very different reasons for some of the biggest defeats suffered by a president’s party. When the president gets a “shellacking,” as President Barack Obama memorably put it after Democrats’ 2010 midterm wipeout, it’s not always obvious his unpopularity is the sole or dominant reason.
It’s true that the three most recent midterms have brought gloom to the White House. In 2006, the Republicans lost both houses of Congress. In 2010, the Democrats lost six seats in the Senate and suffered a 63-seat loss in the House when that chamber flipped to the GOP. And in 2014, the Democrats lost nine Senate seats and control of that body, along with 13 more House seats, leaving their party in its worst shape since 1929.
Look back further, though, and you find plenty of examples in which presidents endured only a political flesh wound, if that. In 1962, the Democrats lost only four House seats and picked up two Senate seats. In 1970, the Republicans lost only 12 House seats and gained two Senate seats. In 1990, George H.W. Bush saw his party lose only eight House seats and one Senate seat. And under Bill Clinton in 1998 and George W. Bush in 2002, the party in power gained seats in the House.
When a landslide loss does occur, the reasons vary widely. For example, in 1938, in the middle of FDR’s second term, the Democrats lost 71 House seats and six Senate seats. A severe recession in 1937, along with Roosevelt’s attempts to defeat conservative Democrats and to “pack” the Supreme Court, were factors. But the election of 1938 happened after four consecutive Democratic triumphs that left the party with 73 seats in the Senate and a House margin of 334 to 88. Some of those Democratic losses, then, were a political “reversion to the mean,” where a measure of equilibrium was restored. The waves roll in, and then they roll out.
The same tidal factor can help explain the 1966 midterms, when Democrats lost 47 House and four Senate seats. Yes, dissatisfaction with the Vietnam quagmire, and with racial and generational upheaval, was significant. But so was the fact that the 1964 LBJ landslide had brought Democrats into the House from normally Republican districts. Going into those 1966 elections, the lower chamber was dominated by Democrats, 295 to 140. Likewise, when the Republicans lost nine Senate seats in 1986—and with it, control of the body—several of the defeated incumbents had been pulled into office six years earlier in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s 44-state victory over Jimmy Carter, and could not survive absent that pull.
Other landslides require still other explanations: In 1974, the Republicans, already in the congressional minority, lost a staggering 48 House seats along with five Senate seats—in part because voters wanted to give a post-resignation boot to Richard Nixon. The historic 63-seat House loss suffered by Democrats in 2010 happened when the effects of the Great Recession had only begun to recede; unemployment was at 9 percent, the deficit was $1.3 trillion, and Obama’s ambitious health care plan was under withering assault.
If the midterms have produced a wide variety of results, with a wide variety of causes, what about the impact of the president’s approval ratings? It will not shock you to learn that high approval ratings for a president tend to benefit his party, while low approval ratings hurt. (This is an insight comparable to the observation that “television is a visual medium.”) But there are a couple of cautionary notes to keep in mind when looking toward this November.
First, the correlation is not exact. Similar approval ratings have produced sharply different results. Carter had a 49 percent approval rating in 1978, and Democrats lost 15 House seats; Clinton had a 46 percent rating in 1994, and Democrats lost 52 House seats.
And sometimes, positive numbers don’t help a president’s party. Dwight Eisenhower’s 58 percent level did not save Republicans from disaster in 1958, when they lost 48 House and 23 Senate seats. Gerald Ford was given a thumbs-up by 54 percent of the public as late as mid-October 1974, but Republicans still lost 48 House seats the next month.
Most significant for today’s political terrain, when a president is in negative territory, there are usually overarching reasons: a faltering economy, or a war gone bad. President Donald Trump, however, has managed to produce historically low approval ratings in the face of a booming economy and (more or less) international peace. There are signs that Trump’s ratings may be improving—Morning Consult reports a measurable bump—but if the president remains underwater through this year, we may see a midterm election unlike any in memory, when the White House party has to contend with a president who is unpopular essentially because of his own conduct and character, rather than the broader state of the union. (The post-Watergate election of 1974 may provide a similar example, but that year there was also the hangover from a recession that created headwinds for the Republican campaign.)
Finally, no look back at the state of the midterms can ignore a singularly significant result that went largely unheeded on election night. In 2010, we were focused on the disaster that hit Democrats at the congressional level. (A reminder: sixty-three House seats gone, and with them, the loss of the chamber; six Senate seats lost, and with them, the filibuster-proof majority.) Yet it was what was happening at the state level that had the most serious consequences. Across the nation, statehouses were falling to the Republican Party, from Maine to Pennsylvania to Ohio to Michigan to Wisconsin to Tennessee to New Mexico. Democrats lost some 650 legislative seats, putting Republicans in near total control over the political machinery of the states. (That pattern continued into the 2014 midterms.)
That was the result that enabled Republicans to consolidate their power, both in raw political and in policy terms. Those statehouse victories enabled Republicans to redraw district lines, magnifying their strength in legislatures and congressional delegations; to restrict access to the ballot box; to cripple the fundraising and collective bargaining power of labor unions, turning one-time bastions of labor like Michigan and Wisconsin into right-to-work states; to cut back on abortion rights; and to expand gun rights.
This all happened in good measure because Republicans spent years channeling money and resources into battles at the state level, culminating in 2010’s Project REDMAP. They recognized that a relatively modest investment of money and energy at the state level could produce hugely consequential political results. Belatedly, Democrats have come to understand that without the recapture of state legislatures and statehouses this fall, their political and policy defeats will only continue.
What to conclude from this survey? By the time Nov. 6, 2018, is over, the Democrats will likely gain House seats, though the Senate is far tougher. But that tells us very little. Trump’s victory did not produce anything like a Republican congressional wave in 2016. His party lost six House seats and two Senate seats—so there are few if any Republican incumbents who will suffer from a lack of Trump coattails. A gain of only a dozen or so seats by Democrats would amount to a huge Republican victory, because it would keep the House under GOP control.
Second, Trump’s approval ratings provide a clue about Republican prospects in the midterms, but the correlation between his numbers and November’s elections is highly inexact.
And finally, while the focus will be on what happens in Washington—Would a Democratic House pursue impeachment? Could a Democratic Senate block Trump’s judges?—pay careful attention to the results from Harrisburg, Columbus, Lansing and Madison. That’s where the most significant impact of November’s votes will be felt.