The midterms didn’t produce a wave. Here’s what that’s meant historically.
Midterm elections are expected to push back against the party of the president who won two years earlier. This week’s vote was surely a pushback on President Biden, but a far weaker one than had been widely foretold.
Moreover, the results could also be read as a partial rebuke of the previous president, Donald Trump. While not on the ballot, Trump had promoted surrogates in the primaries who embraced his claims about the 2020 election. Trump was able to secure GOP nominations for many of his handpicks and some won this week. But in marquee races for senator and governor and secretary of state, his stand-ins did not fare well.
More than a few Republicans felt Trump’s long shadow cost the party its big wave this weekend.
Obama’s first midterm test a “shellacking,” George W. Bush’s a “thumpin'”
Republicans had expected to be partying like it was 1994, the year they captured the majority in the U.S. House for the first time in four decades and in the Senate for the first time in eight years.
That was also the year they ended Democratic dominance in the South for the first time in well over a century, winning most of the region’s governorships as well as of its seats in both chambers of Congress.
Republicans this fall had at least expected to have another “Tea Party” celebration like the one when they gained 63 seats in the House in the first term of President Barack Obama a dozen years ago. He called it a “shellacking.”
Democrats have had their “big wave” years, too, such as in 2006 when they seized the House and surprised many by also squeaking out a bare majority in the Senate. It was a setback for the Republican president at the time, George W. Bush, who called it a “thumpin’.”
Democrats also had a granddaddy of waves in 1974, electing 76 of their nominees to be House freshmen in one day. They were called the “Watergate babies” after the scandal that had spawned them: Earlier that year, evidence of criminal involvement had forced the resignation of Republican President Richard Nixon. While the offending incumbent was gone, his Republican successor, Gerald R. Ford, had pardoned him in September and the cloud over the GOP had yet to lift.
Historically, first midterms don’t bode well for presidents
First midterms are usually cold showers for the occupant of the White House.
The average seat loss in the House has been 28 since World War II. It has been 43 seats when the president’s Gallup Poll approval rating was below 50%. And as for Democrats, in particular, the last four lost an average of 45 House seats in the first midterm after they were elected.
You have to dig deep to find exceptions to this historic rule. Franklin Delano Roosevelt gained seats in both chambers of Congress in his first midterm (1934) as his New Deal found wide acceptance in the depths of the Great Depression. George W. Bush also added a few seats in both the House and Senate in his first midterm (2002) during the national trauma that followed the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In both cases, the midterm boost and the extra seats on the Hill encouraged those presidents to press forward with their programs and projects. That led to a great deal of controversy, of course, and produced mixed results – such as Bush’s invasion of Iraq — that remain debatable (and topics for separate discussion at another time).
But what about the weird midterm elections that did not result in a clear sign from the heavens? What about those that did not point in one direction but in several directions at once?
In 1962, an embattled first-term President John F. Kennedy lost just four seats in the House (scarcely a dent in the Democrats’ huge bulge there) and actually gained three Senate seats. There were two reasons he escaped his first midterm unscathed. One was a spike in his popularity following his steady performance in what came to be called the Cuban missile crisis that fall. (Kennedy sent the Navy to block Soviet ships bringing missiles to bases in Cuba for potential use against the U.S.)
The other was the lack of “coattails” attached to Kennedy’s narrow win in the Electoral College in 1960. Kennedy’s edge in the popular vote nationwide was barely six-figures that year, and Democrats added only a modest 10 seats nationally that year.
Biden’s coattails were non-existent, as his Democrats actually lost seats in the House in 2020. George W. Bush had also won his election in 2000 without adding much to his party’s ranks in the House.
All three presidents would surely have liked to have more votes in Congress in their first two years in office. But lacking same meant also that they had fewer first-term incumbents to protect, which spared them bigger losses in their first midterms.
Not much drama in 1970
Another lukewarm electorate gave few signals to Nixon in his first midterm as president in 1970. The opposition Democrats added a dozen seats to their existing majority in the House while actually losing a couple of seats in the Senate. Majority control was not affected in either chamber. Nixon never looked back, roaring into his reelection campaign the next year and sweeping to a 49-state landslide.
Two decades later, President George H.W. Bush had his only midterm election in 1990 and was hoping to build on gains the GOP had made recently in the South. His party did pick up a few seats here and there but lost a net of seven in the House overall, a distinct disappointment. Bush was at least able to limit the Democrats’ gains in the Senate to just one added seat. But there was no sign in that year that the first President Bush would struggle in the primaries in 1992 and then lose his bid for reelection to Bill Clinton.
Each of these instances of divided government has forced presidents and both parties in Congress to confront each other. The divided government eras have also forced officeholders to govern in crosswinds and crosscurrents. Both executive and legislative branches have been compelled to seek the counsel of the electorate itself, to discern the mood of the voters and get something done.
When leaders from both parties have been willing, compromises have been reached at times to move legislation — even in a closely divided Congress where neither side was able to dominate.
The challenge for the days and months ahead will be to find once again that formula for at least limited bipartisan cooperation, and to do so even with the next set of elections looming in 2024.