A "significant" midterm election?
Earlier this year heated primaries around the country indicated that voters aren't happy with the status quo, and on November 2, they'll have the chance to act on those feelings during this year's midterm elections. Soon voters will answer the fundamental question: To what extent will the status quo be altered?
American electoral history shows that the party in the White House almost always loses seats following midterm elections (Campbell, 1966). One explanation for this is based in the belief that the president's party loses the surge of support from the previous presidential election and, therefore, loses congressional seats (Campbell, 1991). Another major explanation is that these losses occur because moderate voters turn against the president’s party with the hope of "checking" the president’s power which results in a more "balanced" government (Scheve & Tomz, 1991). While both theories have merit, one thing is clear: It's difficult for the party in power to maintain its majority. Nearly every midterm election since the Civil War (except for 1934, 1998, and 2002) has resulted in a net loss of seats for the president's party (Hinckley, 1967). Clearly, then, history is against the Democrats maintaining their current strength in both houses of Congress.
However, it's hard to tell how drastically the status quo will be altered because the number of seats lost during each of those elections has fluctuated. Since 1934, the number of seats lost by the party of the incumbent president ranges from a high of 72 to a low of 4 in the House and a high of 13 to a low of zero in the Senate (American Century Investments, 2010; Wolfensberger, 2006). While some of these heavy losses can be very damaging to the majority party, the truly significant midterm elections are those that result in a change of majority party in both houses of Congress. However, again since 1934, this has only occurred four times (1946, 1954, 1994, and 2006) (About.com, n.d.).
This year there appear to be signs that this might be another “significant” election that may usher in Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate. First, there is considerable voter anger with the current power structure in Washington, and with the Democrats in control of both the Congress and the White House, they will bear the brunt of that anger. As Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling writes, “The voters who hate everything and everyone are a key part of the electorate this year—and their support of the GOP is a big part of why the party's headed for a big victory” (Jensen, 2010).
Second, this anger seems to be translating into general voter preferences for Republican candidates over their Democratic counterparts. “Voters are only marginally more interested in GOP control of Congress than they are in retaining Democratic control of Congress, but they're passionately into the idea of destroying the Congress they have right now,” indicates Dave Weigel in his election blog on Slate.com (Weigel, 2010). This has been a consistent theme for the past nine to 12 months as increasing numbers of likely voters prefer a Republican controlled Congress (Real Clear Politics, 2010).
These “generic ballot” findings have led to more specific predictions that the House will definitely change majority control. One such forecast has the Republicans gaining 86 seats and, if that comes to fruition, it will be the largest gain in seats in American history (Silver, Likely, 2010). An equally significant change in the Senate seems less likely. Although, as Nate Silver writes at his blog FiveThirtyEight, “Republican odds of taking over the Senate on November 2 have now improved to 24 percent—up from 22 percent last week and 15 percent three weeks ago” (Silver, G.O.P., 2010). So, while the chances of a Republican takeover in the Senate are slimmer than in the House, those chances do seem to be improving.
The final push toward Election Day will illustrate if the Republicans simply regain power or take power by way of a sweeping voter mandate. Nobody knows but the nation will certainly be watching.
Campbell, A. (1966). Surge and decline: A study in electoral change. Elections and the political order. New York: Wiley.
Campbell, James E. (1991). The presidential surge and its midterm decline in congressional elections, 1868–1988. Journal of Politics, 53, 477–87.
Hinckley, B. (1967). Interpreting House midterm elections: Toward a measurement of the in-party's “expected” loss of seats. The American Political Science Review, 61(3), 694-700.
Scheve, K., & Tomz, M. (1991). Electoral surprise and the midterm loss in US congressional elections. British Journal of Political Science, 29, 507-521.
Wolfensberger, D. (2006, March 31). When midterm elections matter: Congressional mandates or presidential referenda?. Wilson Center Symposium on Red and Blue America: The Political Map of the New Century.