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Six Isn't Great

The historical trouble with sixth-year elections.

11:00 PM, Oct 31, 2006 • By FRED BARNES
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THE 2006 MIDTERM ELECTION, despite all the hoopla, is turning out to be quite normal for the sixth year of a presidency. This doesn't bode well for Republicans. With President Bush now deep into year six, Republicans are bound to lose House and Senate seats. That's par for the course for the party that holds the White House. But there's brighter side for Republicans. At least they aren't confronted with a realigning election that could make Democrats the undisputed majority party again.

Bush and his allies are struggling to avert the sixth-year jinx. They've tried with limited success to focus the campaign on the taxes and the war on terror, both good Republican issues. These efforts are helping, but probably not enough to get Republicans over the sixth-year hurdle. President Clinton managed to do so in 1998, but he got an assist from Republicans. Impeaching Clinton backfired and gave Democrats a boost at the polls. Of course, Republicans had little more to gain in 1998 after massacring Democrats in the midterm election in the second year of Clinton's presidency.

Sixth-year elections have a character and a pattern all their own. They are change elections. By year six, many voters have grown dissatisfied with the status quo. They've accumulated any number of grievances over the years. They are angry with the president and his administration for what's been done and what hasn't. They're tired and grumpy, even irate at times. Even some members of the president's party have lost faith in the president. And 2006 is no exception, as all the disagreeable aspects have come to pass--as usual.

There doesn't have to be a lacerating national issue for the sixth year itch to drag the president's party down. Ronald Reagan wasn't confronted with one in 1986 when voters put the Senate back in the hands of Democrats after six years of Republican control. But more often than not there indeed is a demoralizing issue at the root of the presidential party's failure.

With President Bush today, it's Iraq. With FDR in 1938, it was his overreaching (trying to pack the Supreme Court and purge conservative Democrats in Congress) that led to a Republican pickup of 72 House seats. When Dwight Eisenhower was president in 1958, a serious recession helped Democrats net 49 House and 13 Senate seats.

Republicans shouldn't do that poorly, but unpopular wars are a particular problem in year six. Voters in 1952, unhappy with the Korean war, punished Harry Truman's party by giving the White House and both houses of Congress to Republicans. In 1966, the sixth year of the Kennedy-Johnson administration, distress over the Vietnam war contributed to the loss of 48 Democratic House seats.

Those elections didn't dramatically alter the political course of the country, nor is this year's election likely to. The elections of 1938 and 1966 simply a restored a semblance of political equilibrium after the devastating Republican defeats in earlier elections. In 2006, the parties are already at equilibrium, with Republicans holding a slight edge. Next week's election is likely to do no more than give Democrats the edge.

The typical process in a sixth-year election is for the out party to gobble up all the open House seats and oust incumbents in marginal districts. This is exactly what Democrats are doing this year as they seek to add at least 15 new seats, the minimum they need to take over the House. On the flip side, few Democratic seats are vulnerable. So Democrats don't have to worry about offsetting losses. That, too, is typical.

Sixth-year losses can be heavy, but they haven't been catastrophic for either party in modern times. As luck would have it, realigning elections--when one party clobbers the other in national, state, and local races, and emerges as the new majority party--have usually occurred in presidential election years. The 1994 midterm election, which brought Republicans to power in a nationwide sweep, was an exception.

To understand why we aren't likely to see a realignment in 2006, we only have to compare political circumstances now with those in 1994. Then, Clinton was relatively unpopular. His massive plan for overhauling America's healthcare system had been coldly rejected by Congress. There were 28 open Democratic House seats due to a rash of retirements. And at the state level, there were many vulnerable Democratic governors and legislators.

Weeks before the election, it was clear Republicans would capture dozens of House seats and a handful of senators and governorships. They wound up winning the House, Senate, a majority of governor's offices, and a plurality of state legislators. It was a nationwide sweep. In many places, all a candidate needed to win was an "R" for Republican by his or her name.