Why Obama isn’t sweating the midterms
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.