It’s conventional wisdom that whichever party holds the White House will lose the House majority in that first midterm election.
But there’s nothing historically normal about this era’s political yo-yo cycle, in which one side claims power and tries to rush through its agenda before voters snap power back to the other side.
Add to that frenzy a consultant-driven maze of deeply polarizing negative advertisements that have repelled the most critical bloc of voters, independents, who keep seesawing in their support every few years.
“Both parties have resorted to the politics of fear and anger — which may appeal to the base, but independents see it as only adding to the animosity dividing the country,” David Winston, a veteran GOP pollster, wrote after crunching exit polling data. “It’s time both parties start defining solutions to problems rather than simply assigning blame, or they risk losing the ability to build a majority coalition.”
Many activists, particularly liberals on social media, will bemoan this as some sort of false equivalence. But top politicians in both parties pointed to independent voters recoiling from Donald Trump’s MAGA Republican extremism for the surprisingly strong showing of Democrats this year.
“They want a little stability, they want a little grounding. They don’t want the kind of extremism, and it’s sort of incendiary extremism, it’s nasty,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in an interview Monday.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) echoed that. “We underperformed among independents and moderates because their impression of many of the people in our party and leadership roles is that they’re engulfed in chaos,” he told reporters Tuesday.
This much up-and-down governance is not the norm.
In fact, over the past 64 elections, the House majority has changed hands just 13 times, according to the House’s historical site.
The norm, in fact, is for one party to win the House majority — usually in a midterm — and then hold power for a good long run of about 14 to 16 years. The classic example came in 1894, following an economic depression that started the previous year, when Republicans gained more than 100 seats and held the House until the 1910 midterm elections.
Today’s instability in congressional power only has one similar period, just after World War II. Republicans won the House majority in 1946 (after a 14-year reign for Democrats) but lost it two years later, only to reclaim it in 1952 and then lose it in the 1954 midterm elections.
That era was marked by a back-and-forth of Americans trying to sort out our place in the world, along with a GOP lurch into McCarthyism that the public ultimately rejected.
Over the next 52 years, the majority changed just once, in 1994, when the Democrats finally lost power.
This current volatility comes almost entirely from independent voters jumping between the two parties in the hope that one will govern closer to the center.
In a memo Winston sent on Nov. 9 to his clients, which include congressional GOP leaders, he highlighted how big political waves that flip House majorities are always the result of big shifts from the middle: Democrats won independent voters by 18 percentage points in 2006; Republicans won by 19 points in 2010; and Democrats won by 12 points in 2018.
Moreover, the 2022 exit polling showed a couple of data points that should have spelled disaster for Biden: just 33 percent of voters this fall identified as Democrats, the lowest total since before the 1980 election, and Republicans accounted for 36 percent of voters.
Those identifying as independents disliked Biden, with just 37 percent viewing him favorably and 60 percent unfavorably.
With sky-high inflation coming in as the top concern for voters, the recipe was set for a Democratic debacle — until they saw what little the Republicans had to offer.
Independent voters favored Democrats by 2 percentage points on the national exit poll, 49 percent to 47 percent for the GOP.
In the past 10 midterm elections, the president’s party won the independent vote in just one other campaign, in 2002, when George W. Bush’s approval ratings were in the mid-60s in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The sweet spot for Democrats came with those swing voters who softly disapprove of Biden’s job performance. As Winston noted, voters who “somewhat disapproved” of Biden favored Democrats by a 52-36 margin in the midterm election.
“Few said Biden was a big factor in their vote. So even though they may have disapproved of the president abstractly, this wasn’t a ‘knives out for Biden/Dems’ crowd,” Nick Gourevitch, a pollster for the Democratic firm Global Strategy Group, wrote in a tweet thread Friday.
Basically, Democrats picked up governor’s mansions and several state legislatures, retained the Senate majority, and almost held the House majority because the voters who mattered most tuned Biden out.
But those same voters did not tune Trump out.
The ex-president’s low popularity with independents, after almost two years removed from the White House, remains significantly worse than Biden’s: Just 30 percent of independent voters in the midterms had a favorable view of Trump, with 66 percent unfavorable.
Considering this, strategists for Republican Mehmet Oz’s Senate run committed one of the most glaring acts of political malpractice during the final weekend of the Pennsylvania campaign. They put their candidate onstage in Pittsburgh not just with Trump but also with the politically toxic gubernatorial candidate, Doug Mastriano.
Oz had been trying to position himself as a sensible moderate and Democrat John Fetterman as the liberal extremist. Instead, he appeared onstage with an ex-president who received just 39 percent of Allegheny County’s vote in 2020, and with Mastriano, who couldn’t even muster 30 percent in the state’s second most-populous county this year.
In the same city, on the same day, Fetterman appeared onstage with Barack Obama, who won the county by about 16 points in both of his presidential campaigns. Obama grew up a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. Less than two months into his presidency, Obama nominated the city’s favorite son, Steelers owner Dan M. Rooney, to be ambassador to Ireland.
Fetterman won Allegheny County by almost 28 percentage points, en route to a comfortable victory of almost 5 points statewide.
In Georgia, pundits focused on how Christian evangelicals did not abandon Herschel Walker after accusations that the former football star encouraged women to get abortions.
But Walker’s controversies crashed his support with moderate suburban swing voters: He received 203,000 fewer votes than Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who comfortably won reelection.
An unknown Libertarian candidate received more than 81,000 votes in the Senate race, triple the number of votes that an unknown Libertarian received in the Georgia governor’s race. More than 17,000 voters in the governor’s race simply skipped over the Senate contest.
Kemp narrowly lost Cobb County, a suburban stronghold north of Atlanta, receiving 47 percent of the vote there. Walker received 40 percent.
Now, Walker heads into a runoff on Dec. 6 against Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) as the underdog.
So after independent voters swung every four years in midterm elections, left then right then left then right, they finally settled right smack in the middle this year. Democrats will hold the Senate by the narrowest of margins, with Republicans in charge of the House by a statistically similar edge.
Democrats could be on the cusp of seizing an edge with independent voters, similar to how they used the backlash to McCarthyism to control Congress for decades to come. Or Republicans could reject Trumpism and claim the center, possibly taking charge in Washington.
Winston has little hope that either party will make the smart play.
“Strategists have clung to the notion that elections are all about the base — dogma that this election disproves, as so many others have done in the past,” he wrote.