Will This Be An Asterisk* Election?
*It takes something unusual for the president’s party to do well in the midterms.
In 2020, we took pains to emphasize that, although he was a significant underdog in our forecast, then-President Donald Trump could absolutely win reelection. Frankly, I’m not sure we’ve taken the same care this year when it comes to Democrats and the U.S. House. Their chances to hold the House started out in the Trump-in-2020 vicinity when we launched our forecast — 13 percent — and now they’ve risen to 20 percent amidst an improving political environment for Democrats.
It’s still not terribly likely Democrats win control of the House. But it also means that a GOP takeover is far from a foregone conclusion. So, let’s talk about that 20 percent chance.
Democrats started out with 222 House seats following the 2020 election, four more than the number required for a majority. According to our model, there’s a 7 percent chance that Democrats wind up with fewer than 222 seats after November but still enough seats to maintain a narrow majority. Meanwhile, there’s a 13 percent chance that they actually gain seats.1 Those numbers combined give them their 20 percent chances.
Time for a quick historical gut check. In 19 midterm elections since World War II, the president’s party lost fewer than five seats in the House once, in 1962. And they gained seats twice, in 1998 and 2002. That means three out of 19 times the president’s party would have a successful enough midterm to keep the House, or 16 percent of the time. That squares pretty well with our model’s 20 percent estimate. Of course, the closer we get to the election, the more we can rely on data specific to this year — but it’s good that we’re somewhere in the ballpark.
But what about the exceptions when the president’s party had a good midterm? Did they have anything in common and moreover, is there anything they can tell us about this midterm cycle? Let’s take them one by one.
Democrats’ strong performance in the 1962 midterms under President John F. Kennedy — they lost only four House seats and gained three Senate seats — is often attributed to the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis, which happened in late October 1962. The Cuban missile crisis might be overlooked by Americans who came of age after the Cold War, but Kennedy himself thought there was about a 1 in 3 chance that it would end in a nuclear war, so its resolution was one of the more pivotal moments of the 20th century.
There are reasonably clear parallels between 1962 and 2002, when there was a huge rally-around-the-flag effect following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and President George W. Bush’s Republicans actually increased their House majority.
The 1998 midterm, however, wasn’t precipitated by a threat to American security. Instead, there were special political circumstances: The House launched an impeachment inquiry into President Bill Clinton in October 1998 in what would later become the first impeachment trial against a president since 1868.2
And if we go back to the last three midterm elections before the end of WWII, the last time the president’s party gained seats in the House was in 1934, in what historians interpret as a show of support for President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program following the Great Depression.
In short, all these elections featured some sort of special circumstance: the Great Depression, the Cuban missile crisis, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the first impeachment of a president in 130 years. But such a definition is inherently fuzzy as you can potentially retrofit almost any political or news development to constitute a “special circumstance,” in the same way that almost every election gets called “the most important election of our lifetimes.”
Take the 2010 midterms, for example. A Democratic president with an ambitious agenda had been elected two years earlier following a global financial crisis. But unlike in 1934, President Barack Obama’s Democrats didn’t gain seats in the House. Instead, they lost 63, the steepest defeat for any party at the midterms since 1938.
Or consider the 1990 midterms. President George H.W. Bush was already fairly popular, but there was a further rally-around-the-flag effect following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, sending his approval ratings into the mid-70s before they slipped back into the 50s by November. Still, that might seem to qualify as a special circumstance. Yet, Bush’s Republicans lost seats in the House. Then again, they lost fewer seats than usual (eight seats) along with just one Senate seat, so maybe that counts as a partial validation of our theory.
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In any event, if Democrats do keep the House, I don’t think historians will have any trouble giving 2022 the special-circumstances asterisk, like they do now for 1998 and 2002. But what is the special circumstance?
It might be noted that the 2022 election is taking place amidst the still-ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, unquestionably one of the most important events in every American’s lifetime given the widespread death and disruption to daily life. With that said, most people have stopped caring about COVID-19; only 1 percent of Americans regarded it as the most important issue facing the country when Gallup asked about it in June. Perhaps if the delta and omicron variants had never come along, Democrats could have campaigned on some miraculous return to normal. Instead, the return has been bumpy, epidemiologically, economically and otherwise. So that’s not the special circumstance I’m referring to, although the pandemic may have hard-to-measure knock-off effects on politics and society.
Nor is the special circumstance an international or security crisis, although there are some conflicts that could boil over by November — that’s part of the intrinsic uncertainty in an election forecast. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t having any obvious effect on the U.S. midterms for now, but if there were nuclear weapons used or any direct American or NATO military engagement, that could change. Meanwhile, Chinese-U.S. tensions over Taiwan are also rising following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit there.
Instead, I’m keeping my eye on the potential for a special political circumstance, more like what we saw in 1998, when the public responded to increasing Republican partisanship and their efforts to impeach Clinton.
Republicans swept to power in Congress in 1994 on an unusually substantive platform including the “Contract with America,” and even achieved a number of policy successes with the centrist, triangulating Clinton. So for them to turn around and make the 1998 midterms about Clinton’s personal conduct was probably a mistake. Although the Monica Lewinsky scandal seems almost quaint by current standards, the impeachment trial and other investigations into Clinton reflected a significant escalation of partisanship under then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, one that has continued through today.
Of course, partisanship alone doesn’t guarantee an electoral backlash. Near-universal Republican opposition to Obama’s agenda didn’t hurt them at all in the midterms in 2010. Instead, what differentiated 1998 is that Republicans were on the attack and not merely trying to block Democrats from getting their own agenda implemented. Relative to the standards of 1998, impeachment was a dramatic step and one that allowed Clinton to gain significant public sympathy.
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This time, Republicans are exercising power not through the Congress but through the courts: most importantly, through the decision by a 6-3 majority of Republican-appointed judges on the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Immediately after the court overturned Roe, Democrats began to gain ground on the generic congressional ballot, which asks voters which party they’d support in an election, and it’s now translated into some electoral successes, too. In Kansas last week, voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot initiative that would have allowed the legislature to restrict abortion in the state amid very high turnout. And in Minnesota this week, Republicans won a special election in the 1st Congressional District by only 4 percentage points, a district that Trump won by 10 points in 2020. Likewise, on June 28, just a few days after Roe was overturned, Republicans won a special election in Nebraska’s 1st District by only 5 points in a district that Trump carried by 15 points.3
Sure, you can make excuses for Republicans on a case-by-case basis — the Kansas ballot measure was confusingly worded, Nebraska’s former Republican representative had been mired in scandal and that Minnesota district has historically been bluer in races for Congress than the presidency. I’d be conservative in putting too much stock in these since it’s a small sample size, too. But at the very least, these are hardly the sorts of results you’d associate with a “red wave,” and they suggest that something different might be going on.
It’s not just the courts, either. Republicans are also aggressively exercising power through state governments, especially on abortion, gay and transgender rights and education policy. And although voters don’t regard Jan. 6 as an event as important as Sept. 11 — public opinion about it is also much more polarized — it’s a reminder that Republicans can also potentially seek to achieve power through extralegal means.
If nothing else, Democratic voters have no shortage of motivation to turn out: Many feel as though their basic rights are being threatened, something a party’s voters ordinarily aren’t concerned about when it controls both the presidency and Congress. The “enthusiasm gap” often accounts for much of the presidential party’s disadvantage at the midterms, but it’s not clear it exists this year after Roe was overturned.
All that said, Republicans are still fairly clear favorites to keep the House. Notably, President Biden is quite unpopular despite a modest improvement in his approval ratings, whereas FDR, JFK, Clinton and GWB were all popular at the times of their midterms. The public still has very negative views about the economy and the direction the country is headed in, and that’s usually rough for the party in power to overcome.
But the circumstances of these midterms are also potentially unusual, with high uncertainty, and that’s why Democrats keeping the House is a thinkable outcome.
CLARIFICATION (Aug. 13, 2022, 8:50 a.m.): This article has been updated with a footnote explaining that if Nebraska’s new redistricting maps had been in place in 2020, Trump would have won Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District by 11 points.