Midterm Congressional Elections

In an attempt to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse, Republican pundits are struggling to suggest that the 1990 midterm elections represent a "victory" for the President and his party because they lost fewer seats in the House of Representatives than is historically the norm. Unfortunately, these apologists are apparently more interested in rescuing a drowning presidency than in providing instructive historical comparisons.

Presidents normally do lose House seats in a midterm election. Lyndon Johnson, for example, lost 47 House seats in 1966; Nixon lost 12 in 1970, and even Reagan lost 26 in 1982. Indeed, on average presidents have lost 29 House seats in midterm elections this century and 24 House seats in elections held since the end of World War II. By this simple measure the Republican Party's loss of 9 House seats in 1990 does appear to be rather meager and if taken superficially might even merit celebration and most certainly relief.

However, by other measures this election should give Republicans little to celebrate and nothing for President Bush to cheer about. Bush is only the fourth President in this century to lose House seats in both the presidential and the midterm elections. Republicans lost fewer House seats in 1990 than "usual" because they had fewer to lose in the first place. Indeed, in post-war elections there are only six other Congresses where the Democrats controlled more seats than they will in the 102nd.

While certainly not a calamitous defeat for the Republicans or the President, by historical standards it was most certainly not a little loss that can be called a victory.


Assistant Professor, UCI

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