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The Very Model of a Modern Midterm

This fall’s election looks unusual—just like the last few.

Sep 13, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 48 • By DANIEL DISALVO and JAMES W. CEASER
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Most analysts have overlooked a remarkable fact about recent midterm elections. The last four—1994, 1998, 2002, and 2006—have all been strikingly atypical. 

The Very Model of a Modern Midterm

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.

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