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Learning from the 1998 and 2002 midterms

The factors contributing to campaign anomalies are there

President Joe Biden has seen his approval ratings tick up slightly. Several political factors are giving Democrats hope they can avert historical midterm campaign trends, Stuart Rothenberg writes.
President Joe Biden has seen his approval ratings tick up slightly. Several political factors are giving Democrats hope they can avert historical midterm campaign trends, Stuart Rothenberg writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — The 1998 and 2002 elections remain the only times since 1932 that the president’s party has gained House seats in a midterm. Do those elections tell us anything about this year’s election?

Midterms tend to bring out the disappointed and angry, who almost always send a message of dissatisfaction to the president. 

The midterm dynamic can be very strong, producing huge partisan waves that result in large House (and Senate) losses for the president’s party. This is especially true when one party controls the White House and both houses of Congress — and is clearly responsible for the direction of the country.

The dynamic also tends to be particularly strong during times of economic turmoil, whether recession, inflation, unemployment or high interest rates. Kitchen table issues get the voters’ attention very quickly. 

What made 1998 and 2002 so different from every other midterm? 

1998: Democrats gain seats

Democrats gained five seats during President Bill Clinton’s second midterm election, and they were helped significantly by the economy and Republican blunders. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “The unemployment rate dropped from 4.6 percent in the first quarter of 1998 to 4.4 percent in the second quarter. The rate changed very little after that; the fourth quarter unemployment rate was also 4.4 percent.”

The Gross Domestic Product was also strong, showing a vibrant economy that was producing jobs without inflation.

Republicans spent much of their time during the fall of 1998 complaining about Clinton’s character, judgment and honesty, culminating in the House of Representatives’ decision to impeach the president on Dec. 19. (Clinton was subsequently acquitted by the Senate.)

Democrats countered by portraying the GOP as petty and partisan — more interested in scoring political points and humiliating the incumbent president than in keeping the economy strong.

Polling showed the Republican attacks fell flat. A late August 1998 ABC News/Washington Post poll showed Clinton’s job approval at a remarkable 66 percent, even while only 28 percent said he was “honest and trustworthy” and only 19 percent said he had “high moral and ethical standards.”

The result was small Democratic House gains rather than the expected small GOP gains. 

2002: Republicans gain seats

Just four years after Democrats overcame the midterm jinx, the GOP did the same thing when the party gained eight House seats during President George W. Bush’s first midterm.

Bush had lost the popular vote in 2000, and his presidential election victory was controversial. That led many to expect a cautious presidency. But Bush was anything but cautious, pushing through a large tax cut and then joining with Democrats to pass education reform. 

The economy slowed for much of 2001, with each party blaming the other for rising unemployment and arguing about whether the economy was in recession.

Gallup polling showed Bush’s approval generally in the mid-50s, though Gallup’s last pre-Sept. 11 survey, conducted Sept. 7-10, 2001, showed Bush’s approval at 51 percent and his disapproval at 39 percent.

Then came the attacks of 9/11, which changed everything.

Bush’s job approval shot up to about 80 percent and stayed there until early March 2002, according to Gallup. His job approval softened after that but remained high. Gallup’s Oct. 31-Nov. 3 survey, conducted just days before the Nov. 5 midterms, found Bush’s job performance at 63 percent approve/29 percent disapprove, terrific numbers by any standard.

The 2002 midterms took place just over a year after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and Bush’s strong poll numbers surely reflected the impact that the “rally around the flag” effect had on the president.

Lessons for 2022?

One reason why 1998 and 2002 don’t offer much guidance about 2022 is that incumbent presidents in those years had much stronger job approval numbers than Joe Biden has today.

Biden’s standing has started to creep up over the past few weeks, but his job approval now sits in the low-to-mid-40s and isn’t likely to approach Clinton’s 1998 or Bush’s 2002 approvals.

Bush’s overall positioning also was dramatically better than Biden’s current standing. 

The GOP’s success during Bush’s first midterm was, to a large degree, the result of that “rally around the flag” effect that followed the 9/11 attacks. Both Republicans and Democrats rallied behind the president — even if they disagreed with him on a wide array of issues.  

Today, the country is deeply divided, with supporters of each party distrusting the opposition. Each side accuses the other of lying, and half of Trump supporters now believe that a civil war is “likely” or “somewhat likely” over the next decade, according to YouGov-Economist polling.

Of course, the GOP of 2022 seems to be making the same mistake that Republicans did in 1998. 

Then, Republicans focused on Clinton’s character as they tried to drive him from office. But voters were more interested in his steady hand with the economy. 

Today’s GOP is being defined by its most extreme voices, who spend much of their time complaining about how the 2020 election was “stolen.”

Their attacks on democracy and the rule of law — and the increasing visibility of former President Donald Trump on the campaign trail and in legal fights — have transformed a referendum on Biden in November into a choice between Democrats and Republicans.

The Supreme Court overturning of Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed the right to an abortion; the FBI search at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort; and the findings of the House select committee investigating the attack on the Capitol — combined with falling gas prices, the passage of a gun control bill, and the use of budget reconciliation legislation to pass major initiatives on health care and climate change — have boosted Democratic enthusiasm about the midterms.

Democrats also seem to be overperforming in special elections and primaries, which reflects unusual enthusiasm for the president’s party. That, along with the nomination of extreme Republican nominees for Congress and state offices, suggests that many voters are more worried about Trump and his allies than they are about Biden.

And if that remains the case into November, it could produce another unusual midterm election.

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