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History Shows Midterm Elections a Hard Slog for President’s Party

President Barack Obama’s second inauguration this week marks the beginning of another midterm election cycle, a period that has proved to be historically unkind to the party in the White House.

In 2014, Democrats can lose no more than five seats to keep their hold on the Senate and must net 17 additional seats to win the House majority. If congressional history is any guide, the latter is highly unlikely.

Still, the outcome next November will be the result of the atmospherics, which are impossible to predict at this early point in the cycle, and, in the case of the House, the most recent round of redistricting, which has left relatively few House districts up for grabs this cycle.

“I just think it will be tough for Democrats, historically, and with the lack of competitive seats,” said former Virginia Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee in the 2000 and 2002 cycles. “But, in this business, rules are being rewritten all the time.”

While it’s often assumed that a president’s second midterm — commonly referred to as the “six-year itch” — is the most difficult, the president’s party usually has found little success in midterms no matter what term the commander-in-chief was in.

The last two midterm cycles produced big wave elections for the party out of power in the White House. Democrats lost 63 House seats and seven Senate seats in 2010, during Obama’s first midterm, and Republicans lost 30 House seats and six Senate seats in 2006, during President George W. Bush’s second midterm.

In fact, the president’s party lost House seats in all but four midterm cycles dating back to the Civil War. The most recent anomalies happened in 2002 and 1998, thanks in large part to unique circumstances. But even those midterms in the wake of dramatic events produced just single-digit gains for the president’s party.

Republicans added seats in both the House and Senate in Bush’s first midterm in 2002, a year after the 9/11 attacks. Democrats gained only a handful of seats in the House in 1998, President Bill Clinton’s second midterm, just as House Republicans were pushing for impeachment.

“We had a really good group of candidates, who worked very hard, and also the Republicans made some outrageous mistakes, which was helpful,” said former Texas Rep. Martin Frost, who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 1996 and 1998 cycles. “The conventional wisdom was that we had no chance at all to pick up seats in the sixth year, and we fooled them.”

Like Frost, Rep. Steve Israel of New York is beginning his second consecutive cycle as DCCC chairman in the second midterm of a Democratic presidency, just two years removed from massive Democratic losses in the House. For now, Israel is being far more cautious than he was in 2012, demurring last month when asked whether Democrats could win back the House in 2014.

Compared to House races, Senate contests are often less susceptible to national waves, but the president’s party has nonetheless had more losing midterms in the Senate as well. The party in the White House has lost Senate seats in 24 out of 38 midterms since 1862. With no obvious offensive opportunities for Senate Democrats at the moment and several of their own seats vulnerable, the Senate has the more likely majority battle in 2014.

In the House, redistricting appears to have limited the number of seats Democrats can target, and Republicans argue that Democrats would likely need to win some conservative districts to take the majority in a midterm when the electorate — generally smaller and less racially diverse — is more likely to favor Republicans. But in the first midterms since the lines were redrawn, it also leaves both parties unsure exactly how the newer districts will perform.

“You will particularly see the consequences of redistricting in ’14 because it will be the first [presidential] off-year election,” a former NRCC senior operative said. “They are completely different animals in terms of the elections and who turns out. And redistricting plays a much more magnified role particularly in off-year elections.”

While history may not be on their side in terms of being able to win enough seats to take back the House, Democrats are entering the cycle with the belief that there is a good chance the party will make gains and at the very least not see anything close to the debacle of 2010. It certainly worked out that way in the 1990s.

“I think the fact that Democrats took significant losses in 2010 means that 2014 has a better chance of going their way, similar to the way that ’98 and ’94 worked out,” said Jon Vogel, a media strategist and former DCCC executive director. “I think the biggest impact on the amount of Democratic gains will probably come from the amount of open seats.”

Vogel also noted that a “dysfunctional Republican majority” will continue to weigh heavily in Democrats’ favor, and he wasn’t alone in that assessment. Davis, the former NRCC chairman, didn’t say Republicans’ House majority was in jeopardy, but he insisted that his party must “put out a real work product that people can rally around.”

“Party branding is very important,” Davis said. “If House Republicans continue to fumble the ball, they could actually lose seats. But it’s impossible to tell what the atmospherics will be.”

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