In a matter of weeks, Americans will head to the polls, and they are likely to send many congressional Democrats into retirement. Politicians and pundits across the country will loudly declare this to be a repudiation of Democratic leadership in general and of Barack Obama’s presidency in particular. Some may even assert that he’s a “lame duck,” rendered impotent until his inevitable defeat in 2012.
Actually, though, “losing” a midterm election is the rule, rather than the exception, for the party that controls the White House. Only five times in American history has the president’s party avoided losing seats in Congress during a midterm election. And each of these instances involved extraordinary circumstances, among them the turmoil over Reconstruction in 1866, the Depression in 1934 and the 9/11 attacks and the early months of the war on terror in 2002.
The fact that the president’s party loses seats in Congress in 90% of midterm elections suggests that not even the most brilliant service in the White House can change the outcome.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s party lost seats mere months after the Battle of Midway, one of the United States’ most overwhelming military victories. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s party twice lost seats in the midst of the greatest economic boom in American history. John F. Kennedy’s party lost seats only a week after he successfully negotiated the Cuban missile crisis — a masterful diplomatic coup.
The evidence, then, simply does not support the notion that midterm elections function as referendums on the president.
Instead, midterm elections are best understood as a byproduct of American political culture. Presidential elections are exciting and dramatic. They attract the interest of many “casual voters” who don’t have a passionate commitment to one party or another but want to cast their vote for the nation’s top leader.
Midterm elections bore these casual voters. They attract fewer compelling personalities, receive less media attention and seem to be less important. As a consequence, nonpresidential elections are dominated by devoted partisans. Candidates who needed independent or crossover votes to win find themselves in more difficult positions . And so, victors of presidential election years often go down in defeat in midterm election years as they find themselves being evaluated by a very different subset of the electorate.
Even if President Obama loses some colleagues in Congress this fall, there will be some consolation prizes.
To start, the most timid members of Congress are generally those whose hold on office is the most tenuous. Many of these people may be shown the door in November. The Democratic contingent that remains in Congress is likely to be smaller, but it will have a greater percentage of members who are comfortable with bold action.
Further, any setbacks suffered this year, coupled with the upcoming election in 2012, will serve to rally the Democrats around their leader.
Finally, if the Republicans are perceived as the “winners” of the election, then the onus of solving the nation’s problems will shift toward them, particularly if the party wins control of one or both houses of Congress. They will be under enormous pressure to do something. And to do something, they will need the support — and the signature — of Barack Obama.
Harry Truman understood this. In the 1946 elections, the Democrats lost 65 seats in Congress — 11 in the Senate and 54 in the House — yet even in the face of those losses, Truman bounced back to implement the sweeping group of reforms known as the Fair Deal. These included important civil rights legislation, massive spending on urban renewal projects and a dramatic increase in Social Security benefits.
Ronald Reagan also understood this. After the Republicans lost 28 seats in Congress in 1982, he was still able to implement much of his legislative agenda, including the tax cuts and welfare reductions that were central to the economic program called Reaganomics.
If the current polls hold, the Democrats stand to lose 40 to 50 seats in Congress, far more than the 20 to 25 that is average for midterm elections. No amount of spin can turn this into a victory for the party or for Obama.
However, it will most assuredly not be a repudiation of him, nor is it necessarily the end of his time as an effective leader.
Christopher Bates is a lecturer in the history department at Cal Poly Pomona and a writer for the History News Service.