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Why Does The President’s Party Lose Seats In The Midterm Elections?

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Over the past few years, a narrative has been crafted around midterm elections and President Obama’s tenure in office. Essentially the narrative is that the Democrats have faced significant midterm losses because of the public’s loss of faith in Obama and his agenda. The proponents of the narrative imply (and sometimes outright claim) that if Obama had moved further to the left, he’d have won seats in Congress instead of losing them in the midterms. This narrative ignores two key points. The first is that Obama actually won seats in the House and Senate in 2008 and 2010 Presidential election years (and Clinton won Democrats seats in the House and Senate in 2016, but that’s a story for another day). The second is that virtually all Presidents lose Congressional seats during the midterms, most in dramatic fashion. Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, lost a combined total of 126 House seats in the 1938 and 1942 midterms. Obama lost a combined total of 76 seats in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. Roosevelt is often upheld by the far left as the progressive champion who embodies values Democrats must return to if they want to win midterm elections. But he lost more midterm seats than Obama, the President the same group disparages for losing such a large number of Congressional seats! The issue is that midterm elections are functionally misunderstood, they are generally not high turnout elections and there are different party dynamics in play for the President in power.

As A General Rule, The President’s Party Loses Seats In The Midterms

As stated in PolitiFact, since the Roosevelt era, the President’s Party has only gained seats in the House and Senate during the midterm elections twice — in 1934 and 2002. Those gains were relatively meager, with Bush II gaining 8 seats in the House and 2 seats in the Senate in 2002, and FDR gaining 9 seats in the House and 9 seats in the Senate in 1934. Bush II’s 2002 mid-term election stands out as a particular anomaly, since the country was still emotionally recovering from 9/11, and the Republican Party was able to capitalize and brand the party as synonymous with patriotism. Clinton’s 1998 midterms also warrant a look, as Democrats gained 5 seats in the House while losing none in the Senate. But excluding the midterm election following 9/11, we’re looking at the President’s party gaining seats in both chambers only once since Roosevelt began the modern era of the Presidency. Midterm losses are far more common and tend to be massive, especially in the House. For instance, Roosevelt lost 71 seats in the House in the 1938 midterms, which is the biggest loss of House seats since. Roosevelt lost 55 House seats in 1942. Eisenhower lost 48 House seats in 1958. Lyndon B. Johnson lost 47 House seats in 1966. Bush II ended up losing 30 House seats in 2006, after escaping midterm losses directly after 9/11. Midterm losses aren’t just common, they are the rule. All Presidents since Roosevelt who have served two terms have had at least one midterm election where they lost seats in the House and Senate. Johnson essentially served Kennedy’s second term, and he lost seats in both the House and Senate in 1966. Ford did the same for Nixon, and he lost seats in the House and Senate in 1974. Carter and Bush I only served single terms, and they also both lost seats in the House and Senate in 1978 and 1990, respectively.

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Presidents Lose Seats Regardless Of How Well They’ve Done Implementing Their Agenda

One false aspect of the narrative is that a President can gain seats in the midterms by successfully implementing their agenda. This is clearly false — the New Deal was largely in place by the late 1930s, yet FDR lost 71 House seats and 6 Senate seats in 1938. The Affordable Care Act was Obama’s signature legislative item, and although it is much more popular now, its successful implementation didn’t stop (many would say that it actually led to an expansion of) Obama’s Congressional losses in 2010. Presidents implementing the policies they were elected on doesn’t prevent midterm losses. So why does the President’s party tend to lose so many seats during the midterms?

The Opposition Is Energized While The President’s Base Isn’t As Engaged

In American politics, midterm elections can’t be fully understood by simply considering the President’s agenda or its implementation. We have to consider the political parties and their bases. Presidential election years are typically high turnout, with more low frequency voters and independents. Midterm elections are far more partisan, and the electorates tend to be comprised of older voters who vote at a higher rate. The President’s base tends to be less interested in midterm elections for one of several reasons:

· They feel they already won the last Presidential election and there is no need to turnout

· Reality has set in, and the President isn’t able to keep all the promises made during the campaign

· They feel alienated by the choices the President has made

Meanwhile, the opposition is energized. “Unity” of the opposition party is irrelevant, opposition voters are motivated to end the status quo. They tend to get more motivated as the President in power successfully implements their agenda. More of these higher partisan voters turnout, and they tend to “nationalize” local elections, blaming the party in power nationally for things happening locally in their states and districts. This often leads to a significant loss of seats for the party in control of the Presidency.

This Phenomena Is Why The First 100 Days Are So Critical

Virtually all Presidents can expect to lose a significant number of seats in the midterm elections, for purely structural reasons. Midterm losses aren’t a true referendum on the President in the way that Presidential year elections are (higher turnout, more representative electorate). That is why the President’s first 100 days are so critical — if major legislative tasks can’t be completed before the first midterm election, they run the risk of never happening. That is because the composition of Congress can change so dramatically that partisan policies can no longer be pursued after the midterms. The Affordable Care Act wouldn’t have passed after the 2010 midterms, for example. It is why Trump is unlikely to secure any meaningful legislation after the 2018 midterms. Presidents must make meaningful legislative progress immediately in their tenure, as it is typically becomes politically impossible after midterm elections.

Expect Future Presidents To Continue The Trend

Proponents of the narrative discussed earlier often imply that an uber-progressive President would somehow be able to avoid steep midterm Congressional losses. History shows us the exact opposite of this — virtually all Presidents face significant midterm losses, be it a liberal or a conservative. Ideology and implementation of policy is irrelevant. There is no scenario in which a President Bernie Sanders (lol, I know right) would avoid steep midterm losses. Voters should expect the President they elect to lose seats in the midterms, as it is a historical norm.

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Freelance Writer. Political Scientist. Three point specialist. Tattoo enthusiast. Food aficionado.

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