By Alan Abramowitz and Norman Ornstein
Sunday, August 15, 2010; B03
With Tuesday's elections in Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia and Minnesota over and the feuds that mark primary season finally winding down, voters and pundits can turn their attention to this year's real political fight: November's general election, when all 435 House seats, along with 37 Senate seats, will be up for grabs. Midterm elections are a uniquely American ritual -- most democracies choose their legislators and executive leaders at the same time -- and they have, over the years, given rise to their share of homegrown political wisdom. But not all of that wisdom is borne out by recent history.1. Midterm votes foretell future election results.
Midterm elections are largely determined by short-term factors, including the popularity of the president and the state of the economy. As a result, they rarely indicate anything about longer-term trends, and they have no value in predicting the results of the subsequent presidential and congressional elections. Presidents whose parties have suffered major midterm losses -- such as Harry Truman in 1946, Ronald Reagan in 1982 and Bill Clinton in 1994 -- have gone on to win reelection easily two years later. So even if Republicans make major gains in 2010, as is widely expected, it won't tell us anything about what will happen in 2012.
That said, presidential elections often predict midterms. For one thing, the president's party almost always loses seats in the midterms. And if a president's election provided major coattails -- big gains for his party in Congress -- his party tends to lose more seats than usual in the next midterm elections. But even here, there are exceptions. Although Clinton was elected president in 1992 with negative coattails (Democrats lost nine House seats that year), his party still suffered a massive loss of 54 seats in the House and eight in the Senate in the 1994 midterm vote. Later, Clinton's second midterm election, in 1998, was one of only three in the past century in which the president's party actually gained House seats.
In 2008, the Democrats picked up 21 seats in the House, having just gained 30 seats in the 2006 midterms. It is exceedingly rare for a party to have gains that large in two consecutive elections -- and unprecedented to have a third big gain in a row. So even as Republicans reeled in humiliation after their rivals' landslide victory in 2008, they might have taken comfort in the prospect of a sharp comeback in 2010.2. It's an anti-incumbent year.
We hear this almost every time midterm elections come along at a time of widespread voter discontent. But even when voters seem very unhappy, the vast majority of incumbents in both parties are reelected. Despite Congress's low approval ratings this year, only a handful of incumbents have lost their primaries, and there were peculiar reasons for several of those defeats. While a second round of incumbents is likely to lose seats in November, it is unlikely that more than 10 percent of lawmakers will be ousted. Even in 1974, which was the worst midterm for incumbents in the past 50 years, 87.7 percent of Congress won reelection. Voters are highly selective in voting out incumbents in the general election -- even when polls suggest that they are eager to boot all the rascals and clean house, they rarely follow through.
The incumbents who do lose in a given midterm tend to come overwhelmingly from the president's party. In 1994, during Clinton's presidency, only Democratic incumbents lost; in 2006, during George W. Bush's second term, only Republican incumbents lost. This year it is likely that almost all of the incumbent casualties will be Democrats.3. The president's message is crucial.
In fact, his message has little effect on midterm elections. If voters are unhappy with the president and the economy is bad, even a great communicator such as Reagan can do little to prevent significant losses by his party. The same is true for presidential advisers. Karl Rove looked like a genius in 2002 because Bush was still enjoying strong public approval in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Four years later, in 2006, Rove didn't look so smart when voters took out their dissatisfaction with the president and the Iraq war on Republican congressional candidates.
Of course, some individual seats will always be affected by the president's message. And in a year when the difference between Democrats losing 35 or 40 House seats is the difference between having Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Speaker John Boehner, every district matters. But overall, there is probably little that Obama can say or do in the next couple of months to change the broad outcome of this year's elections. The die has already been cast.4. It's always about the economy.
Not always. A down economy generally makes the president's party look bad and contributes to significant losses by that party in the midterms. But a poor economy does not automatically mean electoral disaster -- and a strong economy does not guarantee good results, particularly if voters are concerned about other problems, such as scandals or wars.
In 1966, for instance, the economy was booming, but Democrats suffered big losses in the midterm elections, in part because voters were unhappy with President Lyndon Johnson's handling of the Vietnam War and his response to domestic unrest, and in part because the pendulum was simply swinging back toward the middle after big Democratic gains in 1964. In 2006, the economy was in decent shape, but growing opposition to Bush's conduct of the war in Iraq and high-profile Republican congressional scandals contributed to big GOP losses. In 1982, unemployment was at 10.8 percent as the midterms neared, and conventional wisdom said Reagan's Republicans were done for. Republicans did lose 26 of the 33 House seats they had gained in 1980 -- but they gained a seat in the Senate.
This year, however, the economy may trump all. Thanks to the economic collapse, the bailouts of fat cats that followed, and stubbornly sluggish growth and high unemployment, it's once again the economy, stupid.5. Midterms provide mandates.
To the degree that voting results in congressional districts around the country add up to any unified message, it is a judgment on the party in power -- and usually a negative one at that. But the winning party, aided by a media that wants to dramatize election results, tends to spin this judgment as a sign of public support for its policy goals.
If they win big in November, Republicans will no doubt argue that they have received a mandate to pursue their agenda -- and more important, to block or even try to reverse the president's agenda. Democrats similarly claimed their own mandate when they recaptured Congress in 2006. But such declarations can backfire: After their big win in 1994, congressional Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, acted as if the president were irrelevant and they were in charge of the government. That gave Clinton an opportunity to portray the Republicans as arrogant and extreme, and it ultimately contributed to his easy reelection in 1996.
If Republicans make the same mistake in 2011 -- and already, some House Republicans are talking seriously about cutting off funding for the health-care overhaul and parts of the Wall Street reform plan passed this year -- the public reaction is likely to be the same as it was in 1995, when the GOP-engineered shutdown of the government caused a huge backlash against Gingrich and his party. That would make Obama the big winner of the 2010 midterm elections.
Alan Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley professor of political science at Emory University and the author of "The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization and American Democracy." Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a co-author of "The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track."
Abramowitz will be online Monday, Aug. 16, at 11 a.m. ET to chat. Submit your questions before or during the discussion.