Can the House GOP Defy History in the Midterms?
With the midterm elections only six weeks away, I am often asked if Republicans will keep control of the House of Representatives. With all the political volatility swirling around, my safest answer references historical data for the first midterm election of first-term presidents, regardless of party — combined with presidential job approval ratings.
Unfortunately for the GOP and President Trump, postwar trends are unforgiving and justify why Democrats are unabashedly optimistic about winning control of the lower chamber.
Starting in 1946, Democrats led by President Harry Truman lost 45 House seats. It is instructive to know that Truman had a 27 percent job approval rating before the midterm election — a historic low for any president.
The American Presidency Project compiled a chart displaying presidential job approval and the number of House seats lost by the president’s party. Although job approval ratings were not always clear indicators of how well a president’s party fared in its first midterm election, in recent times they have been increasingly so.
For example, under President Dwight Eisenhower’s leadership, Republicans lost 18 House seats in 1954 even though Eisenhower enjoyed a very positive job approval rating of 62 percent in October of that year. Only eight years later, President John F. Kennedy presided over his only midterm election with a 61 percent job approval — justifying why Democrats lost only four House seats. That’s pretty much been the correlation ever since.
In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s low, 44 percent late-October job approval rating translated into Democrats losing 47 House seats in November. In 1970, President Richard Nixon’s Republicans lost only 12 House seats, as Nixon enjoyed an impressive 58 percent job approval rating. (That was only so much comfort for the GOP: Less than four years later, Nixon was pressured to resign rather than be impeached due to the Watergate scandal.)
President Gerald R. Ford, who ascended to the Oval Office after Nixon’s resignation, was hurt by pardoning his predecessor, which resulted in the 1974 midterm loss of 48 Republican House seats. Ford’s job approval rating in October was 53 percent, high by today’s standards, but that number was more like a friendly good-night kiss on the cheek from an electorate that rejected Ford in the 1976 general election in favor of Jimmy Carter.
The midterm election of 1978 with Carter in the White House resulted in Democrats losing only 15 House seats; Carter’s October job approval rating was 49 percent.
Considering President Ronald Reagan’s now exalted and iconic status, many readers may have forgotten that in the 1982 midterm elections, Republicans lost 26 House seats. But that makes sense: A stubborn recession had lowered Reagan’s job approval to 42 percent in late October of that year. By the 1986 midterms, Reagan’s job approval was 66 percent but the House Republicans still lost five seats!
Then in 1990, President George H.W. Bush’s 57 percent job approval rating translated into House Republicans losing only eight seats. What came next is decades of monumental midterm election swings reflecting the modern era of hyperpolarization that has besieged our nation.
In 1994, Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” – and President Bill Clinton’s sub-50 percent job approval – produced a loss of 54 Democratic House seats. Among those losing his re-election bid as Republicans gained control of the House for the first time in 40 years was Speaker Thomas Foley.
The results of the 2002 midterm election were directly impacted by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. House Republicans led by President George W. Bush (67 percent job approval) picked up eight House seats. That marked the first time in 68 years that a president’s party had won more House seats than it lost in the midterm elections of a first-term president. One has to go back to 1934 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democrats pulled off that feat.
President Barack Obama in his first 2010 midterm was to blame for Democrats losing 63 House seats — the most since 1938 when FDR’s party lost 71 seats. Obama’s last pre-midterm job approval rating was 45 percent.
As President Trump’s first midterm draws near, Democrats need only 23 seats to win back House control that they lost in 2010 after Obama’s first midterm debacle. A bad omen for the GOP is Trump’s latest RealClearPolitics job approval average of 43.7 percent — slightly less than Obama’s 45 percent job approval around this same time in 2010.
With all this history and presidential job approval in mind, here is my answer to the question of whether Republicans will keep control of the House:
If we average the number of seats lost by Clinton (52) and Obama (63) after their first midterm election, the number is 57.5 seats. And both of those presidents had higher pre-midterm job approval ratings than Trump does now. With Democrats needing only 23 seats, the data strongly suggest that, absent some phenomenon approaching divine intervention, Democrats will rule the House when the 116th United States Congress convenes on Jan. 3, 2019.
Of course, political miracles do happen -- like the one we all witnessed on Nov. 8, 2016. So my advice to Republicans is to start praying.