After President Obama’s 2008 victory in which Democrats won the presidency as well as 21 seats in the House and 7 seats in the Senate, the 2010 midterm elections swung the ideology pendulum the other way, resulting in a sweeping Republican victory – the party took 63 seats in the House and 5 seats in the Senate. Following these results, a number of people expected to see Republicans continue to gain momentum going into 2012, resulting in a presidential victory. As we all know, this was not the case. While there are a number of factors that contributed to the Obama victory this past November, this post focuses on the idea that midterm elections are not an accurate indicator of what is to come in the next election cycle.
A study done by the American Political Science Association notes that this victory of the opposition party in midterm cycles is nothing new in political history; the study notes that “in every off-year congressional election but one since the Civil War, the political party of the incumbent President has lost seats in the House of Representatives” (Tufte 812). While the potential reasons that could explain such a steady pattern throughout election cycles are not well understood, a number of hypotheses have been put forward. For instance, the turnout in off-year elections is substantially lower than that of presidential elections—in class, we discussed how candidates in midterm elections are much more focused on motivating constituents to show up to the polls rather than pushing any specific agenda; given this argument, it can be assumed that a good number of the people who cast their vote in a midterm election are not easily pulled from their partisan ideology anyway. Building on that, the aforementioned study proposes that midterm elections are possibly just “an electorate returning to their normal partisan alignment after the more hectic presidential contest two years earlier, rather than an electorate responding to short-term national forces and acting as a ‘rational god of vengeance and reward’” (812).
Furthermore, what is interesting about the trends of midterm elections is that because this cycle is so consistent, it points to the idea that the electorate is not responding to the president’s first two years in office when casting a vote. The Midwest Political Science Association published a study that claimed that the economy has virtually no effect on midterm election results:
“Presidents would be wise to make sure that the economy is booming when their own office is at stake, but boom or bust has no effect on their party at midterm” (Jacobson 400).
Another study done by the Southern Political Science Association reached a very similar conclusion:
“Attitudes toward national issues, including the state of the economy and the performance of the incumbent president had little or no impact on voting decisions in 1978. Although a few survey-based studies have produced evidence that economic conditions affected some voters in some congressional elections, these effects appear to be too weak and inconsistent to explain the aggregate-level relationship between economic trends and congressional election outcomes” (Abramowitz 31-32).
While the APSA study agrees with this notion on the surface, Tufte claims that this explanation is still incomplete because while it provides further clarification that the country is likely returning to its previous partisan alignment and therefore explains a loss in seats for the President’s party, it doesn’t explain the number of seats lost by the victory party at the midterm (Tufte 813).
Oddly enough, this study concluded that the number of lost seats is a reflection of the President’s performance thus far as well as the state of the economy—the midterm election, according to Tufte, is not as much an election as it is a referendum on the performance of the President (826). Even in cycles where the President enjoys a successful first half of his term, this study points out that the party still operates at a loss at the midterm simply because of the decline of idealism and hype that clouds the minds of voters come election time. This model extends to congressional seats by the notion that most voters will apply their views of the President’s party to the congressional seats on their ballot (826).
The science of midterm elections is something that appears to be very predictable, yet highly inexplicable at the same time. While there are a number of studies that will argue that the science of these elections reaches much further depths than this, I think the overall conclusion that can be taken away from this is that midterm elections are not solid predictors of what is to come in the presidential election to follow; they may provide some insight into how voters (note—the people who actually turnout in midterm elections, which is a very small slice of the population) feel about the current President, but even those numbers aren’t very telling. I would say that we will see what happens come 2014, but I think we already know how this is going to pan out.
Abramowitz, Alan I. “Economic Conditions, Presidential Popularity, and Voting Behavior in Midterm Congressional Elections.” The Journal of Politics 47.1 (1985): 31. Print.
Jacobson, Gary C. “Does the Economy Matter in Midterm Elections?” American Journal of Political Science 34.2 (1990): 400-04. Print.
Tufte, Edward R. “20. Edward R. Tufte. 1975. “Determinants of the Outcomes of Midterm Congressional Elections.” American Political Science Review 69 (September): 812–826. Cited 259 times.” American Political Science Review 100.04 (2006): n. pag. Print.