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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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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.

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