The 2014 Midterm Elections: A Little Historical Perspective

It's All About the President

For obvious reasons, Democrats are currently licking their wounds and Republicans are dancing for joy after Tuesday’s midterm elections. The general (and I think accurate) consensus is that this was more of a vote against the Democrats than a show of support for Republicans. So the question becomes, “What did the Democrats do wrong?”

I could run through a long list of circumstances that may have played a role in feeding this public resentment of Democrats, with most of them related to the performance (or perceived performance) of President Obama: the rise of ISIS, the botched health care rollout, Secret Service incompetence, the Ebola crisis, and an economic recovery that many believe is still too slow. But in the end, this election largely came down to a couple of simple facts, and if you take a quick look back at the past century of national elections, it was also predictable.

Since 1912, there have been nine presidents that served at least two terms. (I am counting Coolidge and Truman even though they served slightly less than eight years, and not counting Johnson, who served for slightly longer than five years.) In every case except for Bill Clinton in 1998, the presidents’ parties lost seats in Congress during the mid-term elections of their second terms. In some cases, these losses were relatively minor, but in others, they were as substantial (or more so) as what happened to the Democrats on Tuesday. On the brink of victory in World War I, Woodrow Wilson’s Democratic Party lost control of both the House and the Senate. When the master politician Franklin Roosevelt was president in 1938, the Republican Party gained 80 seats in the House during that year’s midterms. Under Eisenhower in 1958, the Democrats gained 15 Senate seats and 47 in the House. And Ronald Reagan, remembered today as such a popular political figure, saw his party lose control of the Senate in 1986, with the Democrats managing to widen their already substantial majority in the House.

Clearly, history does not completely repeat itself, and the circumstances in each of these elections were unique. But when you see the same pattern over the course of a century, it is clear that the recent election was more than simply an indictment of the current Democratic Party’s leadership. It is also clear that Republicans should refrain from celebrating too much and Democrats from shedding too many tears. There is no clear pattern, after all, in the presidential elections that followed these midterm landslides.

So what might be going on here? In my view, it often comes down to a few simple things. Roughly a century ago, the federal government began to take on an increasingly important role in Americans’ lives. As this role increased, people correspondingly held the government responsible for a wider variety of circumstances. As the head of this growing federal government, the president became the central figure in American politics. For many Americans, there is little distinction between the terms “government” and “President Obama.” They are one and the same. Whatever is happening within the United States and world, no matter how difficult it may be to connect these circumstances to the actions of the President, he will ultimately be held responsible. And in a country and world with a host of problems, there are lots of reasons to be angry.

The federal government, of course, often does little to enhance its reputation. This is especially true in Washington DC today with its seemingly perpetual partisan gridlock. Polls consistently show that Americans are angry at the government in general, and when angry at the government, the tendency is to take out this anger on the party that controls the White House.

There is a natural tendency to become more passionate about politics when you are angry, and the people who tend to be the angriest are those of the party not in power. Sure, Republicans have controlled the House and have been able to block any significant actions in the Senate since 2011, but the White House is what really matters. (All that the Congress has the power to do, after all, is pass budgets, laws, and other minor things.) So Republicans, whose party has been shut out of the White House for six years, were more likely to show up and vote, with Democrats more likely to be complacent since Obama would still be in place for another two years. And independents were less likely to cut the president some slack since he has been in the job for six years.

Understandably, Democrats did the same thing that Republicans did in 2006: avoid any association with the president as much as possible. History has shown, however, that the fortunes of people in Congress are closely connected to the public perception of the White House. Given the fact that so many things have improved since Obama took office, Democrats may have been wiser to campaign on this good news rather than acting embarrassed or attacking Republicans for being anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-poor, or whatever. If you are going to be judged by the president’s record anyway, then you should work to change the public perception instead of running on the basis of opinion polls. Although as history has shown, the president’s party may get its butt kicked in second-term midterms no matter what it does. Maybe the best thing that can happen for existing and aspiring members of Congress is to have their party lose the presidency from time to time. It’s easier to run as the outsider, after all, than to be held accountable for actually governing.

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