Midterms Forecast: No Wave, Just Modest Gains

Midterms Forecast: No Wave, Just Modest Gains

By Sean Trende - May 2, 2013

Yesterday I began a two-part series trying to establish expectations for the 2014 midterms. My argument was that we won’t likely see a Republican wave this time around, and that it is probably time to scratch the “sixth-year itch” argument.

Part 1: Congressional Elections and the Sixth-Year Myth

Today I want to focus more specifically on what we might expect to see in the upcoming elections. Let’s first look generally at the obstacles Democrats face in their quest to take back the House. They need a net gain of 17 seats to do so, although they might well get a start on this by picking up an open seat in South Carolina, where Mark Sanford’s troubled special election campaign has been abandoned by the NRCC.

So let’s assume they need 16. Let’s also understand that there is no “rule” against the president’s party gaining seats in a midterm election. Losing seats, however, is a very strong tendency. The president’s party has gained seats in only three midterms since the Civil War: 1934, 1998 and 2002 (it did so in 1902, but not relative to the size of the House, which was increased that year).

These elections occurred in very unique circumstances. In 1934, we were in the midst of a sharp recovery that began almost literally the day after Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated. The economy grew by 11 percent, according to some estimates. In 1998, we were in the midst of another sharp economic boom, the Republicans had overreached with their impeachment of the president, and the Democrats had few vulnerable seats after their 1994 debacle. In 2002, President Bush was still riding high on his post-9/11 popularity, and the drums of war were being beaten again for Iraq, creating a “rally ’round the flag” effect.

In other words, an incumbent president’s party only gains seats in midterm elections in pretty outstanding circumstances. As we’ll see below, the circumstances for Democrats right now are pretty mediocre.

But even if you think that circumstances for the Democrats this year are like they were in 1934 or 1998, or like the Republicans’ circumstances in 2002, bear in mind that that probably isn’t enough. In ’34, Democrats gained nine seats. In ’98, Democrats gained five. In ’02, Republicans gained eight.

In other words, Democrats would have to almost double up on the best midterm election in U.S. history to take back the House.

Now this doesn’t mean it can’t happen. In response to yesterday’s piece, David Nir of Daily Kos Elections referred me to this article from Steve Hirdt at ESPN, which shows 10 “rules” proving that none of the teams in the NFL could possibly win the Super Bowl. Nir jokingly referred to this as the tendency of commentators to succumb to the “anything that hasn’t happened before can’t happen now” rule.

This tendency has wrecked many an otherwise fine analysis. In 1998, most observers were quite certain the Democrats wouldn’t gain seats, because everyone knew that the president’s party always loses seats in midterms (unless that president is FDR).

In 2010, we had something of a “showcase showdown” effect going on, where prognosticators seemed bent on making sure they were as close to the actual number as they could be without going over it. Almost everyone’s prediction was on the low end of what really happened. I’m convinced this was, in part, because we didn’t have any recent examples of a party losing more than 55 seats in a midterm (it’s not accidental that predictions steadily climbed upwards in 2010 until they struck this level, then stayed there until the very end).

So what’s important to keep in mind is that it is absolutely possible for the Democrats to gain 16 seats. It would just take a highly unusual combination of events for it to occur. I don’t think we’re seeing that yet.

So let’s now look more closely at the factors that influence midterms. From the Democrats’ perspective, we have the good, the mediocre, and the ugly. (Note: As I pointed out in Part 1, when put into a regression equation, all of these factors come back either significant, or awfully close to significant.)

First, the good news. Congressional elections have a tendency to revert to the mean. That is to say, over time, there’s something of an “ideal weight” for parties that they will tend to gravitate toward. The Republicans or Democrats might win majorities of 280 or 290 seats in a given election. But given the partisan composition of the nation, that level of strength in Congress just isn’t sustainable over the medium to long term.

The following chart shows how far above or below the mean the president’s party has been in each midterm election since 1962, as well as the result. It’s not perfect, but you can see the rough relationship here.

The good news for Democrats is that they’re still pretty underexposed. In other words, we should probably expect them to do better than they otherwise would, given the condition of the economy and the president’s job approval.

One caveat: The post-2010 redistricting may well have shifted the Democrats’ expected outcome downward (as did the post-1990 redistricting), which we won’t know for another few elections. For now let’s just observe that both parties’ opportunities are limited.

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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