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Midterms and the Most Powerful Force in American Politics

The president's party almost always loses seats in midterms. Here's why.

President Biden. With midterms on the horizon, there's an assumption that his party will have a rough year, which to some extent becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
(Trevor Bexon/Shutterstock)
Some presidents come into office with a bold agenda that they muscle through Congress, changing the policy landscape in lasting ways. Then their party loses seats in the midterms. Other presidents aren’t able to get much of anything done at all, and then their party loses seats in the midterms.

The loss of congressional and legislative seats in presidential midterms is essentially a given. The president’s party has lost U.S. House seats in every election since the end of World War II, with only two exceptions. Losses are even greater when there's unified control of government.

There’s no reason to think this year is going to be any different, with Republicans leading in generic House polling and the number of House Democrats retiring at a 30-year high. President Biden’s approval ratings are poor, and polling shows a large majority of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track.

People do a better job of keeping track of what’s wrong than what’s going right, says James Stimson, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In terms of economic news, for instance, the job market is the best in half a century, yet more people seem to be more worried about inflation and rising gas prices.

Currently, according to Gallup, Americans’ satisfaction with how their personal lives are going is near a 40-year high, while their sense of how the country is going is near a 40-year low. “Voters are nearly always angry, whether they should be or not,” Stimson says. “The natural thing to do is take it out on the party in power.”

There’s an almost automatic assumption that the president’s party is going to have a rough year, which to some extent becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Incumbents leave because they think they’ll face a tough environment, while the out-party is able to recruit strong candidates who expect that this will be their year. The same type of calculations takes place among donors on either side.

Also, having recently won the White House, partisans tend to take power for granted, while the party that lost is mad enough to show up and demand change. “Even if the population is fairly divided on whether the president is going a good job, the people who are unhappy are more motivated,” says Andrew Busch, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

Consider the Virginia gubernatorial race last fall. Biden carried the state by 10 percentage points in 2020. Naturally, turnout was lower in an off-year election, but Republican Glenn Youngkin won 85 percent as many votes as President Donald Trump had collected a year earlier. By contrast, Democrat Terry McAuliffe took only 65 percent as many votes as Biden had. The relative turnout difference was enough for Youngkin to carry the state narrowly.

The same thing is likely to happen nationwide in November. A NBC News poll last month found that 61 percent of Republicans describe themselves as very interested in the midterm elections, compared with 47 percent of Democrats. Such sizable gaps in enthusiasm have translated into substantial gains for the out-party in each of the last several midterms.

“Voters are always in a mood to blame someone, and it’s the incumbent party getting blamed,” Stimson says. “The natural thing to do is take it out on the party in power.”

Punished for Success

In 1968, Richard M. Nixon became the first president since 1848 to take office without his party controlling at least one chamber of Congress. Since then, divided government has been more common than not. Since Jimmy Carter’s presidency during the 1970s, only George W. Bush has seen his party control Congress for more than half his time in office.

When most Americans think about government, they think about the White House, making presidential approval numbers perhaps the most important metric in politics. During the last two presidential elections, only one senator was elected from a state that didn’t support her party’s candidate for president. In every election from 1952 to 1998, more than 100 House members were elected from split-ticket districts that supported the other party for president. The current Congress has just 16.

It may seem odd that, with most voters habitually supporting one party or the other, control is still so volatile. But with the nation closely divided, even a small share of voters changing their minds makes a big difference. Trump won independent voters by 4 percent in 2016, then lost them by 13 percent in 2020, a major factor in his defeat and bigger loss in the popular vote.

The public often turns against a party when its policies are too successful. This may sound counterintuitive, but there’s a kind of Goldilocks effect at play. When Democrats push liberal legislation, swing voters think they’ve gone too far. When Republicans are in control, those voters are left similarly dissatisfied about conservative changes.

“Public opinion tends to move against the ideological direction of the party in power,” says Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. “All it means is, Trump was in charge one year and Biden is in charge the next and the status quo has moved leftward. There will be people who want things less conservative than Trump but less liberal than Biden.”

Sometimes the sense that the new party in power has taken things too far is borne out by reality. Remember Bush unsuccessfully spending his “political capital” on Social Security privatization after winning re-election in 2004, or Barack Obama pushing through the Affordable Care Act in 2010. Whether those were great ideas or not, it was clear in both cases that much of the public hadn’t been brought along.

When a party takes power, it tends to interpret the result as a mandate for change, when really the public just wanted to throw the bums out. They quickly turn dissatisfied with the new bums and then turn them out at the first opportunity in midterms.

Contemporary presidents therefore push their policies hard because they anticipate only having a brief window before losing their congressional majorities. “Both parties are so fearful that they are going to lose the midterm than they end up taking these maximal policy strategies in their first year, which is the only time they’ve got a honeymoon and a full, unified government,” says Lara Brown, director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.

The Benefits of Obstruction

If the president’s party wants to strike fast, the opposition party does all it can to gum up the works. Not being in power, they know they won’t bear the blame when things go wrong. Whether bills fail or just trigger a lot of argument, the public gets angry at the party that’s nominally in charge.

If Biden isn’t able to get much or anything out of his ambitious “Build Back Better” proposals, he’ll pay the political cost, even if Republican obstructionism is the root cause of his failure. Similarly, when congressional Democrats have failed in their repeated attempts to pass voting rights legislation, much of the media attention and public anger has been directed at holdout Democrats such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia, rather than the Republicans who were unified in opposition.

“The American public doesn’t necessarily know the ins and outs, but they know the parties are fighting with a vitriol that doesn’t suggest compromise is in the offing,” Brown says. “That makes the public more likely to say, ‘I’m going to support the party that’s out of power because the one that’s in power is acting irrationally.’”

All this helps explain why Americans are perennially dissatisfied with politics. Minority parties are rewarded for obstruction, while presidents tend to overreach and then lose their working majorities. It’s not a recipe for sustained or coherent policymaking.

“There isn’t an incentive for the parties to resolve the gridlock and end the backlash and wave elections,” Brown says. “The only way out of this is eventually we’re not going to be having the same conversations we’ve been having for the last 30 years in the culture wars.”


Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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