Midterms and the Most Powerful Force in American Politics

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Some presidents come into office with a bold agenda that they pass through Congress, changing the political landscape in lasting ways. Then their party loses seats in the midterm elections. Other presidents are unable to do much at all and then their party loses seats mid-term.

The loss of congressional and legislative seats midway through the presidential term is essentially a given. The president’s party lost seats in the U.S. House in every election since the end of World War IIwith two exceptions. The losses are even greater when there is unified government control.

There’s no reason to think this year will be any different, with Republicans leading the way generic home survey and the number of House Democrats retire at a 30-year high. President Biden’s approval ratings are poor, and polls show a large majority of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.


According to James Stimson, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, people are better at following what is going wrong than what is going well. In terms of economic news, for example, the labor market is the best in half a century, but more people seem to be more concerned about inflation and rising gas prices.

Currently, according to Gallup, Americans’ satisfaction with how their personal lives are going is near a 40-year high, while their perception of how the country is doing is near a 40-year low. . “Voters are almost always angry, whether they are angry or not,” Stimson says. “The natural thing to do is go after the ruling party.”

There is an almost automatic assumption that the president’s party is going to have a tough year, which to some extent becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Incumbents leave because they believe they will face a difficult environment, while the outside party is able to recruit strong candidates who expect this to be their year. The same type of calculations take place between the donors on each side.

Moreover, having recently won the White House, supporters tend to take power for granted, while the losing party is crazy enough to come forward and demand change. “Even if the population is quite divided on whether the president is doing a good job, people who are unhappy are more motivated,” says Andrew Busch, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

Consider Virginia’s gubernatorial race last fall. Biden lifted the state by 10 percentage points in 2020. Naturally, voter turnout was lower in an off-year election, but Republican Glenn Youngkin won 85% of the votes President Donald Trump garnered one year earlier. In contrast, Democrat Terry McAuliffe only got 65% more votes than Biden. The relative difference in stake was enough for Youngkin to narrowly carry the state.

The same is likely to happen across the country in November. A NBC News Poll Last month, 61% of Republicans described themselves as very interested in the midterm elections, compared to 47% of Democrats. Such wide spreads of enthusiasm have translated into substantial gains for the out-party in each of the past midterms.

“Voters are always in the mood to blame someone, and it’s the incumbent party that gets blamed,” Stimson said. “The natural thing to do is go after the ruling party.”

punished for success

In 1968, Richard M. Nixon became the first president since 1848 to take office without his party controlling at least one house of Congress. Since then, divided government has become more common than not. Since the presidency of Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, only George W. Bush has seen his party control Congress for more than half of his term.

When most Americans think of government, they think of the White House, making the number of presidential endorsements perhaps the most important metric in politics. In the last two presidential elections, only one senator was elected from a state that did not support his party’s candidate for president. In each election from 1952 to 1998, more than 100 members of the House were elected from split constituencies that backed the other party for the presidency. the the current Congress has only 16.

It may seem odd that, with most voters usually supporting one party or the other, control is still so volatile. But with the nation tightly divided, even a small portion of voters changing their minds makes a big difference. Trump won independent voters by 4% in 2016 and then lost them by 13% in 2020, a major factor in his defeat and greater loss in the popular vote.

The public often turns against a party when its politicians are too successful. It might sound counterintuitive, but there’s a kind of Goldilocks effect at play. When Democrats push liberal legislation, swing voters think they’ve gone too far. When Republicans are in control, those voters are equally dissatisfied with conservative changes.

“Public opinion tends to go against the ideological direction of the ruling party,” says Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. “All of this means Trump was in charge one year and Biden is in charge the next and the status quo has shifted to the left. There will be people who want things that are less conservative than Trump but less liberal than Biden. »

Sometimes the feeling that the new ruling party has gone too far is borne out by reality. Recall Bush unsuccessfully spending his “political capital” on privatizing Social Security after winning re-election in 2004, or Barack Obama pushing through the Affordable Care Act in 2010. Whether these are good ideas or no, it was clear in both cases that a large part of the audience had not been brought in.

When a party takes power, it tends to interpret the result as a mandate for change, when in reality the public just wanted to throw the bums out. They quickly become dissatisfied with the new bums, then fire them at the first opportunity halfway through.

Contemporary presidents are therefore pushing their policies hard as they plan to have only a brief window before losing their congressional majorities. “Both sides are so scared of losing the middle ground that they end up adopting these maximum political strategies in their first year, which is the only time they have a honeymoon and a full, unified government,” says Lara Brown. , director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.

The Benefits of Obstruction

If the president’s party wants to strike quickly, the opposition party is doing everything to block the work. Not being in power, they know they won’t be blamed if things go wrong. Whether the bills fail or just spark a lot of discussion, the public gets angry with the party that’s nominally in charge.

If Biden is unable to derive much or anything from his ambitious “Build Back Better” proposals, he will pay the political cost, even if Republican obstructionism is the root cause of his failure. Likewise, when congressional Democrats failed in their repeated attempts to pass suffrage legislation, much of the media attention and public anger was directed at recalcitrant Democrats such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia, rather than the Republicans who were united in opposition.

“The American public doesn’t necessarily know the ins and outs, but they know the sides are fighting each other with vitriol that doesn’t suggest a compromise is in sight,” Brown said. “It makes the public more likely to say, ‘I’m going to support the party that’s not in power because the party that’s in power is acting irrationally. “”

All of this helps explain why Americans are perpetually dissatisfied with politics. Minority parties are rewarded for their stonewalling, while presidents tend to go overboard and then lose their working majority. It is not a recipe for sustained or coherent policymaking.

“There is no incentive for parties to resolve the impasse and end the backlash and wave of elections,” Brown said. “The only way out is that we’re ultimately not going to have the same conversations that we’ve had for the past 30 years in the culture wars.”

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