Why Obama isn’t sweating the midterms

October 7, 2010


By Joshua Spivak
The opinions expressed are his own.

With the Democrats thought to be facing a tidal wave of voter anger, and Republican incumbent Senators already being swept out of office in record numbers, the one person who seems unconcerned is President Obama. He has good reason not to sweat: while conservative activists are hoping the 2010 result is a harbinger for the presidential election, history shows that even disastrous mid-term elections don’t say much about a president’s re-election chances.

It has become a cliché that the president’s party suffers defeat in their first mid-term election. With a few exceptions, most notably the Republicans in 2002, the president’s party invariably witnesses setbacks in that first national return to the voters. Sometimes the impact is modest, other times the impact is so severe that it costs the party in power control over the legislature. Everyone is quick to remember the Democrats disaster in 1994, when they lost 54 seats and control of the House for the first time in four decades.

But the same phenomena occurred in 1954 when the Republicans coughed back the House to the Democrats, and in 1946 when the Republicans took control after a gain of 55 seats. Similarly, before the 1982 election, the Republicans had a minority in the House, but it was large enough to make deals. But a decisive Democratic performance ended that. Practically every mid-term has examples, including a 60+ seat deluge to the Republicans in 1914 following Woodrow Wilson’s first term and a 50+ seat victory that gave the Democrats control of the House in 1910.

What is noteworthy about the mid-term debacles is that they rarely spell disaster for the president. Looking at the elections of the past, one can see that Clinton, Reagan, Nixon and Eisenhower all cruised to reelection, and both Truman and Wilson skated by successfully. Rather than be hampered by the opposition controlling one or both houses of the legislature, these chief executives were strengthened. It gave the president an easy foil to score quick political points.

But it is not talking points and campaign ads that should give the incumbent comfort. It is another reality of mid-term elections that make the results a poor predictor of the next election. Voter turnout falls off greatly in mid-term elections. Since 1970, voter turnout in a mid-term election has never topped 40%. Outside of the 49% turnout in 1996, presidential elections always see over 50% of voters going to the polls. Just the last two elections tell the tale. In the presidential election of 2008, voter turnout among the voting age population was 56.8%. In 2006, it was just 37.1%.

So far the 2010 primaries highlight this problem. According to a recent survey by American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate, voter turnout was 18.7%, tying the second lowest turnout levels ever. While the Democrats have been the ones who have been the party who has taken the big hit – due to the twin problems of lack of enthusiasm and lack of exciting primary races – the invigorated Republican voters aren’t racing to the polls either.

As bad as 2010 is shaping up for the Democrats, and as difficult as it will be for Obama to get his policy enacted over the next two years, the election’s impact doesn’t say much about 2012.

Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Why SHOULD He sweat. He’ll still have a job, unlike 60% of his party (and 20% of his constituents).

The S.S. Democrat Party is sinking fast, and Obama is one heavy anchor, baby:
http://gravelle.us/content/obama-anchor- baby

You’d think with all that stimulus money, General Motors might be able to build Obama and His party a life boat: http://www.dailyscoff.com/?p=2689


Posted by jjgravelle | Report as abusive

[…] Why Obama isn’t sweating the midterms | Analysis & Opinion |. Categories: Business News, Economy, President Tags: Analysis & Opinion, Democrats, Obama […]

Posted by Why Obama isn’t sweating the midterms | Analysis & Opinion | « BizNOB | iNetwork 2 Networth | Report as abusive

Interesting — every picture of O-Blame-a in every Reuters news article in the last couple of months has shown a pensive and worried looking individual. How far back in the archives did the author have to go to find the picture posted with this article??? Perhaps the smile is because O-blame-a thinks there’s a light at the end of the tunnel………. when in fact its a passenger train full of really unhappy voters who are about to run him out of town.

Posted by cynicalme | Report as abusive

@cynicalme – Unless it is a candidate that is, as of this point, completely unheard of- I can absolutely guarantee you that will Not happen.

The midterms draw the uninformed sheeple that are much more willing to vote whomever, for whatever reason out of office. Usually doing so without any real investigation into whom they are electing to replace them. That doesn’t happen in mass scales during presidential elections. With that said, there isn’t a serious gop contender at this point- not even remotely close to being acceptable.

Posted by mynamehear2 | Report as abusive

a lot can change in two years my friend. Obama will find some more businesses to destroy, some more things to tax, go back on a few more promises, push through a few more bills the public doesn’t want and he will be kicked out of office.

Don’t you worry.

Posted by BHOlied | Report as abusive

A lot can change in two years. A few Tea Partiers will win election, and the public will quickly realize that they are very long on rhetoric and terribly short on anything that resembles experience and knowledge of public policy. A few “normal” GOP candidates will win, too, and soon realize that despite their best attempts, there isn’t a whole lot they can do to change something as large as the ENTIRE US ECONOMY in a period of months. Everyone’s still going to be angry, but people *might* actually see that no matter who’s in power, the country is in the toilet.

Posted by Adam_S | Report as abusive

@BHOlied – No worries here- I’m all for Anyone from either side of the isle that offers the most intelligent, specific and likely to succeed Solutions (sorry, “No” is not a solution).

My point was, as of now from the GOP I see absolutely No Likely alternative right now. All I do see at this point are silly caricatures. Perhaps better suited for mindless laughs on a reality show- but nothing to run the worlds foremost country.

Posted by mynamehear2 | Report as abusive

[…] not as scared as people seem to think Why Obama isn’t sweating the midterms | Analysis & Opinion | Apparently he isnt as scared about the midterm elections as people seem to want to think. […]

Posted by Obama not as scared as people seem to think | Report as abusive

[…] history shows that even disastrous midterm elections don’t say much about a president’s… The Great Debate This entry was posted in Global News and tagged isn’t, midterms, Obama, sweating. Bookmark the […]

Posted by Why Obama isn’t sweating the midterms | One Stop Everything News | Report as abusive