October 25, 2010

US Mid-Term Elections: A Typical Result Likely

After the American Century

The media hype about these midterm elections has been devoid of historical memory. One breathless journalist after another has been proclaiming that a vast change is taking place. In fact, this midterm election looks much like those of the past.

Typically, the part occupying the White House loses seats in both the House and the Senate at every midterm election. Between 1842 and 1990. only one sitting president managed to win seats, and that was Roosevelt in 1934 after his spectacular early successes in the New Deal. Otherwise, in that 150 year period, EVERY president lost. Even popular presidents like Eisenhower and LBJ suffered big losses in the midterm elections of 1958 and 1966. Eisenhower lost 48 seats in the House and 13 in the Senate. Johnson lost 47 in the House and 4 in the Senate. So, should Obama lose roughly the same number of House seats, as now projected, he would be in good company.  Note also that Clinton lost 52 seats in the House in 1994, FDR lost 71 House seats in 1938, and Reagan lost 8 Senate seats in 1986.

Perhaps the media have lost track of this pattern in US elections because it did not hold true twice in recent memory. First, in 1998, Clinton did not lose any Senate seats and gained a few in the House. But since he had lost so many seats in 1994 and not gotten so many of them back in 1996, this was less a victory than it might appear. Second, in the aftermath of 9/11, George W. Bush (who received less than half the vote in 2000), was able to terrify the nation into supporting their president. That was a special circumstance, to say the least, and in 2006 the midterms were "normal" again, as he lost 30 House seats and 6 in the Senate.

One other typical pattern of midterm elections is also running true to form: the races are tightening as we near election day. Races that Republicans seemed likely to win have become ties in several states. Few now think the Republicans will be able to regain control of the Senate, though it does seem they have a good chance to retake control of the House. This could lead to grid-lock in Washington (as in 1995-96), but then again, gaining control of the House might force the Republicans to develop detailed policies again, rather than simply working to obstruct.

I do not regard this election to be anything unusual in the history of American politics. I do not even think the Tea Party is all that significant, since its members are almost all people who would vote Republican anyway.  Given huge secret campaign contributions and lots of media attention, they nevertheless do not seem to be changing the overall pattern very much. US elections are mostly decided by the one-third of the voters who are in the middle, and  they waffle from one party to the other on a regular basis. Unhappily, many of this group are not deeply analytical and appear to have historical memories that stretch only back about three or four years, at best. The beconomy, specifically, their own situation, is the main issue for such voters. With unemployment high, growth sluggish, and lots of foreclosures, this economy would be hard on any incumbent president.

In nine days we will know the results, but the statistical pattern suggests that Obama and the Democrats are not about to suffer anything more than the typical rebalancing inflicted by voters on the incumbents. Why should anyone familiar with American politics think that the nation had suddenly become liberal, or that the Democrats could expect to hold on to 59 Senate seats? Expect the Republicans to regain the House by a small margin, while the Democrats hold on, barely, to the Senate.