The Impact of the Midterm Primaries
“The Connecticut Democrat [Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal] accidentally said he was a combat veteran, when in fact he never served in Vietnam. Could happen to anyone! The claim is dishonorable, but everybody expects politicians to lie. One of the odd perplexities of an angry moment is that expectations are so low, politicians end up surviving scandals that would kill them in happier times” (Brooks, 2010).
The winds of change appear to be blowing again. It was only 18 months ago that President Barack Obama swept into office under the mantle of change and yet, as we approach the midterm elections of 2010, change is back (maybe it never left?) and more popular than ever. The difference is that, this time around, it appears to be accompanied by another sentiment—anger. As Brooks’ quote above speaks to, there’s a growing sense that the root of the desire for change this time is deep anger about what’s going on in Washington (and that might help explain why Blumenthal “survived” the scandal). As a result, voters may go to the polls and demand sweeping changes again in November. Certainly, the growth of the Tea Party Patriots (the loosely organized group founded in 2009 that leads locally and nationally coordinated protests against “big government”) is a great example of this sentiment. But there are mixed signals about how different the upcoming midterm election will be from previous ones.
What We Know
First, American election history tells us that the party in the White House almost always loses seats in midterm elections (A. Campbell, 1966). The "surge and decline" theory used to explain this phenomenon indicates that in a presidential election year, a party's victorious presidential vote positively affects its congressional election results (“surge”). In the midterm election that follows, the president's party loses the advantage of the presidential surge and, as a consequence, also loses congressional votes and seats (“decline”) (J. Campbell, 1991). The other major explanation is that this occurs largely because voters (usually moderates) turn against the president’s party with the hope of balancing the president’s power and producing more "balanced" government policies (Scheve & Tomz, 1991). While neither explanation is complete on its own, it’s an undeniable fact that, with the exception of 1934, 1998 and 2002, every midterm election since the Civil War has resulted in a net loss of seats for the president's party (Hinckley, 1967).
Second, the recent congressional primaries certainly show that change is in the air. For example, Libertarian Republican Rand Paul won a landslide victory in the Kentucky Republican Senate primary. Joe Sestak defeated five-term Senator Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary. Blanche Lincoln and Bill Halter are headed to a run-off election in the Arkansas Democratic Senate primary. And Mark Critz (D) defeated Tim Burns (R) in the Pennsylvania 12th Congressional District special election. While all of these elections have their particular local themes and implications, a key takeaway is that those who are running against the Washington establishment are winning—regardless of party.
What We Don’t Know
Given the above, two questions remain: How many victories will result for either party? Will the Democratic Party lose its majority in Congress?
For those answers, unfortunately, all we have are more questions.
First, what other trends can we glean from the primaries and how will those trends impact the November elections? Most political science literature tells us that voters who go to the polls during the primaries bear little resemblance to those who go to the polls during a general election (Ranney, 1968). That means that, while many will speculate and try to discern the meaning of the recent primaries, much of it could be pointless.
Second, what impact will the Tea Party Patriots have on the upcoming elections? Given our previous answer, essentially we’re still not sure. But that won’t stop pundits from trying to share their detailed analysis anyway (Silver, 2010; Was Tuesday a ‘failure’ for Republicans?, 2010; Does Rand Paul’s win signal a ‘Tea Party tidal wave?’, 2010). Not surprisingly, the results can be read multiple ways and that will assuredly continue to be the case over the next several months.
Third, how will the economy be doing six months from now and how popular will the president be? If the economy is doing better (and the public perceives that it’s doing better) then the president's approval ratings will likely improve as well (Lewis-Beck & Stegmaier, 2000). Right now, both have a long way to go, as we continue to struggle to emerge from a recession and the president's approval ratings are low (Real Clear Politics, 2010). If both do improve, however, then the anticipated midterm "decline" might not be as drastic as Democrats fear.
What It Might Mean
Of course, we won’t really know the answers to these questions until the election results are in. Like most things in politics, though, there’s no foolproof theory to explain what will happen (nor what happens after the fact, either). That being said, look for the continued reading of the “tea leaves” to see how the Tea Party candidates are doing in the remaining primaries throughout the summer. In addition, focusing on the president’s approval rating should give an indication of the mood of the country and some sign of what’s to come in November. Whatever happens, it will be very interesting to watch what transpires as summer turns to fall and the general election campaign kicks into full swing.
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.
Lewis-Beck, M., & Stegmaier, M. (2000, June). Economic determinants of electoral outcomes. Annual Review of Political Science, 3, 183-219.
Ranney, A. (1968, May). The representativeness of primary electorates. Midwest Journal of Political Science, 12(2), 224-238.
Scheve, K., & Tomz, M. (1991). Electoral surprise and the midterm loss in U.S. Congressional elections. British Journal of Political Science, 29, 507-521.
Silver, N. (2010). What Tuesday really meant. FiveThirtyEight: Politics Done Right.
Does Rand Paul's win signal a ‘Tea Party tidal wave?’ The Week. (2010).
Was Tuesday a ‘failure’ for Republicans? The Week. (2010).