Most analysts have overlooked a remarkable fact about recent midterm elections. The last four—1994, 1998, 2002, and 2006—have all been strikingly atypical.

Students of congressional elections have labored to distill a “standard outcome” or benchmark norm for midterms, namely, for the president’s party to lose a limited number of seats. When this occurs, opposition leaders may shout victory, but the public pretty much ignores them, realizing that such small losses for the president’s party merely reflect the wear and tear of governing. These “normal” elections occur in normal times, when the president’s popularity may have fallen slightly from the height of his election, when the state of the economy has not changed dramatically, and when there is no crisis in foreign affairs. In such cases, local issues tend to predominate in most of the races.

But the last four midterms all deviated from this norm. Deviations on the “upside,” from the point of view of the president and his party, occur when they hold their ground or even gains seats. This can result either from a strong reaction against the opposition party or from growing approval of the president.

In 1998, the electorate was punishing Republicans for their handling of the Clinton impeachment process and rewarding Democrats for a rapidly growing economy. In 2002, voters expressed approval of George W. Bush’s initial response to the foreign policy crisis provoked by the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Election results of this kind are exceedingly rare.

Deviations on the “downside” occur more frequently, and they reflect a strong negative judgment of the president. Pundits usually describe these elections in geological terms, some preferring terrestrial analogies (“landslide,” “earthquake”), others aquatic ones (“wave,” “tsunami”). The most dramatic of these deviations involve not just the loss of a large number of seats for the president’s party, but also a reversal of party control in one or both houses of Congress. The shock in these cases is both political and psychological: New committee chairs take up their gavels, and a new majority confronts the president.

The 1994 election, in which Newt Gingrich helped Republicans capture both chambers of Congress, was one of the most spectacular instances of party reversal in American history. The 2006 election, when the Democrats replaced the Republicans in both houses, was not far behind. In 1994, the campaign turned on the Republicans’ policy platform—the Contract With America—and their rejection of President Clinton’s health care program. The big theme of 2006 was the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war.

Four straight unusual outcomes in a row, with a fifth on the horizon, raises the question whether the conventional wisdom about midterm elections any longer applies. The common denominator of all these elections is that they were all dominated by a national issue or theme that penetrated the competitive local races to an unusual degree. It may well be that nationalized midterm elections are the new norm in American politics.

From all indications, 2010 is shaping up to be at least as extraordinary as the last four midterm contests, if not more so. At stake is Barack Obama’s dream of being the transformative president who would consign conservatism and the memory of Ronald Reagan to the dustbin of history and inaugurate an age of revived and renewed liberalism.

Everything hinges on the numbers. To overturn the current Democratic majorities, Republicans need to flip 40 seats in the House and 10 in the Senate—gains that, given the advantages incumbents enjoy, are difficult to achieve in modern politics. Leading electoral analysts nevertheless give Republicans a good chance, better for the House than for the Senate.

Democratic leaders, for obvious reasons, publicly dismiss prognostications of defeat. Vice President Joe Biden recently guaranteed the party faithful victory, adding, “Were it not illegal, I’d make book on it.” But beneath his bluster, the vice president was already defining victory down, such that it would encompass any result short of the Democrats’ relinquishing control of both House and Senate.

No one today is even talking about the possibility of the Democrats’ gaining seats—a fact that represents by far the most important story of this election season. Just two years ago, following the 2008 election, the cover of Time magazine featured Barack Obama’s head superimposed on FDR riding in his convertible. For Time and so many others, Obama was to be the new Roosevelt, inaugurating an enduring Democratic majority. Today, Democrats will be thrilled if they fare no worse under Obama than they did under Jimmy Carter in the midterms of 1978.

How unusual 2010 will be turns on whether Democrats lose control of one or both chambers of Congress. There have been only six instances where the party holding all three national electoral institutions going into a midterm election lost both the House and Senate, and eight where it lost one chamber. Facing high unemployment, an anemic recovery, and a precipitous loss in the nation’s confidence, Obama and the Democrats stand on the precipice of just such a rejection.

Whether midterm elections that topple the governing party provide “mandates” for the new majority is another matter. The incoming party has every incentive to portray the results as not only a rebuke of the president, but also an indication of public support for its agenda.

This year, if Republicans capture one or both houses of Congress, they will undoubtedly argue that they have a warrant to pursue their policy goals: revisiting Obamacare and altering the stimulus policies. Yet, two leading electoral analysts, Norman Ornstein and Alan Abramowitz, recently cautioned the GOP against pressing its case too assertively. They argue that such tactics can backfire and cite the example of Gingrich in 1994 to make their point.

While Gingrich’s grandstanding may have helped Clinton win reelection in 1996, Republican majorities did force major changes in public policy. Of course, such changes only happened because Clinton was flexible enough—and found it in his interest—to play ball. If Republicans are victorious this fall, they may wish to gently remind Obama what he peremptorily told them after dismissing their complaints about the stimulus bill: “I won.”

In an age when so much attention is focused on the president, midterm elections spotlight the separation of powers. Congress doesn’t speak with the same unitary voice as the president, but a decisive outcome in congressional elections can still send a message loud and clear.

Daniel DiSalvo is an assistant professor of political science at the City College of New York-CUNY. James W. Ceaser is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of politics at the University of Virginia.

Next Page