The 2022 Midterms, Part I: History & the House

It’s good to be back! This week on Presidential Politics for America:

First up… some bragging.

I’ve been itching to get back into the prediction game after my success in the last two election cycles. Please allow this brief boastful moment before I return to my nondescript, even robotic, analysis:

  • In 2018, I predicted, from Six Months Out through Election Day, that all the relevant indicators pointed toward the Democrats flipping the House while the Republicans retained the Senate. That’s exactly what happened.
  • In 2020, I correctly predicted the House would remain Democratic. I also correctly predicted all but two Senate races (Maine and North Carolina), including a prediction that both Georgia Senate races would go to a run-off and delay knowing who won the Senate until January. (PPFA then retreated back into hibernation without covering those George run-offs.)
  • As for the 2020 presidential, my prediction describing Biden’s path to the nomination was eerily on the money, and my prediction of the general election nailed 49/50 states. (Thanks a lot, Georgia. Are you trying to tell me we couldn’t find 11,780 votes for Trump?) I also predicted, as did anyone else paying attention, that President Trump, if he lost, would claim it was a stolen election. I did not, however, predict he would incite a mob to storm the capital. (I thought he’d direct them to state legislatures.)

Suffice it to say, after these performances, I could have enjoyed a permanent retirement, sipping victory cocktails on Punditry Island for the rest of my years. But no. I came back. For you.

You’re welcome.

Before we get into the 2022 data and Way Too Early predictions, it would be instructive to first understand some of the historical midterm trends — trends that may well be more powerful than anything specific to 2022.

Back on August 10, I tweeted the following:

For the gambling impaired, “+144” means a $100 bet would win you that hundred plus $144, more than doubling your money. The bigger the plus number, the bigger the underdog — and the more money you could win. The +450 means a $100 bet would win you that hundred plus $450. (If you ever see a minus sign in front, like a -150, that means you would have to wager $150 to win $100. Those occur when you’re betting on a favorite. The bigger the minus number, the bigger the favorite, and the more you have to wager just to win $100. Now you know.)

That was indeed a smart value bet. More recent odds have a Republican sweep as a strong favorite (-213) with a Republican House and Democratic Senate down as well (+355). Oddschecker moved the Republican sweep likelihood from 31.75% in July to 70.42% in December.

It’s not unusual for betting markets to lag behind PPFA, but it is surprising they ignored all the fundamentals working in Republicans’ favor.

It’s a perfect storm for a Republican takeover, especially considering the Democrats have almost no margin for error. Their majority in the Senate, for example, is no majority at all; it’s only their control of the vice-presidency that gives them a political “majority,” if not a mathematical one.

As for the House, if they had a 20-plus seat lead, they could potentially absorb a sizable loss. Unfortunately for them, their lead in the House is nearly as narrow as it is in the Senate. Here’s the current composition of the 435-seat House of Representatives:

  • Democrats: 221
  • Republicans: 212
  • Vacant: 2
  • All are up for re-election
  • Number of seats needed for a majority in the House: 218
    • Number of seats Democrats can lose and still retain majority: 3
    • Number of seats Republicans must add to gain majority: 6

The Democrats’ lead in the current House of Representatives is just nine seats. Their pad on the majority is just three.

Recent history teaches us they will almost certainly lose that narrow advantage.

When talking about the “fundamentals” and “perfect storm” working against Democrats this year, I’m referring to three specific patterns all pointing in the same direction:

  1. The American electorate’s recent, rapid vacillation between the two parties;
  2. Presidents’ parties struggle during midterm elections, particularly if the president is unpopular; and
  3. Midterm elections are generally more favorable for the Republican Party.

Let’s look at each of these phenomena, starting with:

  1. The American electorate has never been more vacillatory.

American politics has been stuck in a sort of thermostasis. These days, when one party gains power, we can expect the other party will pretty quickly take it back.

Believe it or not, that wasn’t always the case. Let’s examine my favorite graph of American political history:

There’s a lot going on here! Across the bottom are years dating back to 1855. The top half of the chart reflects which party has control of the Senate, the bottom half reflects which party has control of the House, and the middle stripe reflects which party has control of the presidency. The line graph, meanwhile, conveys the extent to which a party controls a chamber; the higher the peak, the higher the percentage of seats controlled by the party in that chamber. What a chart!

The Civil War was a political earthquake. It triggered political aftershocks, most notably the northern-based Republican Party controlling the Senate for two separate 18-year stretches and the House for three separate 16-year stretches. In the 72 years from 1861 to 1933, the GOP controlled both chambers of Congress for two-thirds of that stretch, and at least one chamber for all but six years.

Then, another political earthquake shifted American government’s tectonic plates. Thanks to the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt, an era of Democratic dominance followed. From 1933 to 1995, the Democrats controlled the House for all but four of those years. They paired that with Senate control in all but six more years, giving them control of Congress for 52 of those 62 years.

Although not as pronounced, the presidency mirrored these periods of partisan dominance. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln kicked off a stretch of 13 Republican victories in 17 presidential elections. Starting in 1932, however, Roosevelt catalyzed a stretch of 7 out of 9 Democratic terms.

We could go further back than that to see a long stretch of Democratic-Republican antebellum dominance over their Federalist and Whig opponents, including a couple elections where they were the only viable political party. TL;DR: most of American history — from about 1800 to deep into the 1900s — shows long stretches of control from a political party.

The story of the last 30 years, however, is quite different. Starting with Bill Clinton defeating President George HW Bush in 1992, we’ve seen the American people impatiently switch between the two major parties. In this 30-year stretch, not once has the White House remained within a party’s control from one president to the next. We’re living the only time in American history where, for three decades, we don’t see consecutive presidents from the same party. The modern electorate suffers from schizophrenia.

Congressional elections mirror this late-onset bipolarism. As shown on the above chart, parties no longer control chambers for that long, and a unified Congress is particularly rare. During this century — already one-fifth over, believe it or not — neither party has been able to control both Congressional chambers for more than four consecutive years before momentum shifts back to their opponent. The American electorate has become a fan in a warm room, shifting its aim from right to left to right again.

Why this oscillation? Part of the answer comes from our fed up swing voters. Their understandable frustration causes them to quickly give up on a party that had claimed the ability to solve the problems that they never seem able to solve.

Meanwhile, swing voters’ analytical abilities have become clouded by the rising partisanship of lawmakers and their allies in the media. Parties’ explanation for their own failures is always — truly always — to blame the other side. The media on both sides eagerly echo these excuses to the point where media consumers are convinced it’s the truth.

Each party, whether in power or not, uses the other party as a bogeyman. “Vote For Us,” if for no other reason than to keep out “The Others.” This intense rise in negative partisanship has forced apart our parties and made partisan moderates — those responsible enough to work with the other side to govern our country and solve some problems — harder to come by. Conceding anything to the other side — that evil, evil other side — is now seen as a betrayal and worthy of a primary challenge.

Unfortunately, negative partisanship has proven effective. (That’s why Republicans nominating Donald Trump, when I think the country is begging for a responsible Romneyesque Republican, would be Democrats’ dream come true. Talk about effective negative partisanship!) Because it’s effective, political discourse and campaigning are grounded in the opposing parties’ negative attributes, which can leave swing voters nodding their heads about the awfulness of the ineffective incumbent party. Consequently, disheartened independent voters have been drawn to no coherent ideology other than Throw The Bums Out.

Then, in the bums’ place, we elect more bums.

And on the fan oscillates.

This paradigm of the last 30 years gibes with a much longer pattern, bringing us to the second “perfect storm” factor working against the Democratic Party in 2022:

2. Presidents’ parties struggle during midterm elections, particularly if the president is unpopular.

Midterm elections are tough for an incumbent president’s party, which is bad news for Democrats.

In a low-turnout election like midterms often are, the more motivated voter packs a stronger a punch. The most motivated voters are those out of power, as they’re eager to check the president. Meanwhile, with one party in control of the nation’s most powerful and visible office, skeptical and impatient swing voters pair with that highly motivated out-party to push back on the in-party’s power.

Examples abound, particularly in the elections for the House of Representatives. In his midterm, President Trump got drenched by a blue tsunami that swung 41 House seats to the Democratic Party. Presidents Obama and Clinton, two years into their first terms, both coughed up their party’s Congressional majorities to the GOP. President George W. Bush lost his Republican majority in the middle of his second term (whereas his first midterm was protected by the fallout of 9/11, a unique circumstance which boosted his popularity). His father lost nine House seats and a senator in 1990. President Reagan’s win in 1980 towed 35 new Republicans on his coattails, but two years later the Democrats took back 27.

We can go back further: presidents CarterNixonFord (essentially Nixon’s second midterm), and Johnson all lost double-digit seats in the House at their midterm elections. In fact, dating back to the 1930s, only three times has a president’s party picked up House seats in a midterm.

These foreboding statistics should worry the Democratic Party and their leader, President Biden, particularly with an eye on his sagging approval rating. Even though the President isn’t on the ballot this November, presidential approval numbers deeply impact midterm elections. In 2018, Gallup found that the party of presidents who had an approval under 50 percent lost an average of 37 House seats — and that analysis was before the Trump midterm cost the GOP 41.

And that’s just an average. On an individual election basis, Gallup found that of all instances of presidential approval being below 49 percent (there are nine such instances, including Trump in 2018), the president’s party has only once kept losses below 28-seats (a “mere” 13-seat loss for Obama’s Democrats in 2014):

With Democrats only three seats above a majority, we know that to keep the majority they can’t even sustain any kind of loss of 4 seats, to say nothing of a 13-seat loss or likely much worse. They need to hope Biden can hover around or north of 50 percent approval.

So what is Biden’s approval rating? Well, it’s not too good.

Yikes! It would take a remarkable and unlikely momentum reversal for him to rise to the level of presidents whose party don’t get wiped out at their midterm.

It’s even worse if we isolate midterm trends for Democrats, which brings us to our third key fundamental of this perfect storm:

3. Midterm elections are generally more favorable for the Republican Party.

Broadly speaking, Democrats do better in presidential years than in midterm years. Midterms are typically lower turnout elections, which means more dedicated, reliable voters have a disproportionate say. Historically, the most reliable voting demographics are older and whiter, two groups that these days trend Republican. (In presidential elections, when voter turnout is higher, we see steep climbs in minority and youth turnout, which helps Democrats.)

The combination fundamentals 2 and 3 makes midterm elections a double-difficult challenge for Democrats when a Democrat is also in the White House. Try to wrap you brain around this chart from FiveThirtyEight:

As already identified, a president’s party struggles during a midterm election. This chart further builds on that pattern by showing us that the Democratic Party, if there’s a Democrat in the White House, has never — in seventy years — earned a higher share of midterm votes compared to the presidential election that just happened. And in 2020, Democrats only barely won the House.

If all of the above sounds bleak for the Democrats this year, that’s because it is.

Because of their narrow margin, if Democrats lose House seats in this election, they’re going to lose the House. And if we learn from history, we know they’re almost certainly going to lose House seats.

There’s a decent chance there are Democrats who will disagree with today’s analysis. The election isn’t tomorrow, after all. They think there’s time to turn it around, that inflation will subside, that Covid circumstances will improve, that Biden’s numbers will rebound, etc. etc.. They’re also relying on some version of, “The American people will come to their senses and realize the Republican Party is selfish, treasonous, callous, and stupid, and they’ll see that the Democratic Party actually had the better policies for Americans.”

But for generations, partisans on both sides have anticipated such realizations about the other party. It never happens. There are much larger forces at play than economic circumstances and political messaging.

Prediction: The Democrats will lose the House of Representatives. Badly.

But what of the Senate? Will Democrats still pair the presidency with the upper chamber — the one that has advice and consent on federal judges for the back half of Biden’s term? That’s important!

It’s also much less clear. However, I’ve reached my self-imposed 2500 word limit. Join me Part II for a breakdown of Congress’s upper chamber. To know when Part II drops, please sign up for email updates.


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