Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Truth About Midterms

The president spoke at a Democrat fundraiser in Miami a few days ago — and, once again, the former constitutional law professor demonstrated an amazing lack of understanding of how things work in America.

That's really remarkable, given the fact that the man has run in two national campaigns and has been immersed in the Washington political culture for nearly a decade — in addition to the time he spent teaching constitutional law.

I know that most Americans really have no knowledge of American history, but I've always wanted to believe that the president, whoever he happened to be, was more knowledgeable than the average American — if only because he or someone acting on his behalf researched something before he opened his mouth.

When he said that Democrats "do pretty well in presidential elections" but "get clobbered" in midterms, Obama was playing the victim card once again.

Surely, I thought to myself, he must know better than that. He's been to college, where he must have had to study some history. He's written books, which required him to write and think about history. He's been president, a role in which he has made history, for more than five years. He knows it isn't as simple as he suggests.

He isn't stupid, is he?

Maybe he has a selective memory. Or at least a very short–term one that doesn't predate his presidency.

Granted, his only experience with midterms during his presidency wasn't a good one. The Democrats did get clobbered. They lost 64 seats in the House.

And, from that same perspective, presidential election years have been better for Democrats, at least during the Obama era. In the years when he was at the top of the ballot, Democrats gained seats in Congress.

But that is how it usually is for presidents, regardless of party. Historically, midterms have been referendums on presidencies. Most of the time, they aren't favorable, even when a popular president sits in the Oval Office. The lower a president's job approval ratings are, the worse midterm elections tend to be.

(And that doesn't bode well for Obama, whose approval ratings are generally worse now than they were at this point in the 2010 election cycle.)

Obama's presidency only covers the last six years — actually, it is more like years right now. In the context of the lifespan of a nation that will celebrate the 238th anniversary of its Declaration of Independence this July, that is less than 3% of the total. Even if you calculate that lifetime from 1789, when George Washington was elected America's first president, it still represents less than 3% of the total.

In 2006, the last midterm election of the George W. Bush presidency — two years before Obama was elected president and while he was serving in the U.S. Senate — Republicans lost more than 30 House seats and six Senate seats. Democrats seized control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1994.

I'm quite sure he must have been aware of that when it happened.

In fact, midterms nearly always go against the party that holds the White House. In the last half–century, there have been only two exceptions to that rule — 2002, when voters rallied around the party in power just after the 9–11 attacks, and 1998, when there was a backlash against Republicans for their attempt to impeach Bill Clinton.

Otherwise, the president's party has, to use Obama's expression, been "clobbered."

Well, clobbered isn't always the best word. Sometimes, it hasn't been so bad. In 1990, George H.W. Bush's Republicans lost only one Senate seat and eight House seats as the nation was mobilizing for the Gulf War. Historically, that sort of loss is probably typical.

But sometimes it has been terrible. Clinton's Democrats lost both houses of Congress in 1994 (nine Senate seats, 54 House seats). Ronald Reagan's Republicans lost control of the Senate in the 1986 midterms (eight seats flipped) and lost quite a bit of ground (27 seats) in the House in the 1982 midterms.

There was a time when massive losses were the exceptions to the rule. Most of the time, losses were kept to a handful of seats either way. In 1978, for example, Jimmy Carter's Democrats lost only three seats in the Senate and 15 seats in the House, which may have hinted at but certainly didn't predict Carter's landslide loss in 1980.

In fact, Carter's party suffered losses in 1978 that were dwarfed by the hit the Republicans took in the Watergate midterm of 1974 (five Senate seats and 48 House seats), but the Republican president, Gerald Ford, did much better against Carter in 1976 than Carter did against Reagan in 1980.

That was probably more characteristic of the way things used to be — when most midterm shifts were modest. In those days, massive midterm losses were more rare. When they happened, you knew that habitually long–suffering Americans were running out of patience.

But voters haven't been showing a lot of midterm patience in the last couple of decades — and they have almost never had much patience with the president's party in the sixth year of a presidency.

That alone made Democrats vulnerable in 2014 — along with the fact that the party's success in congressional elections the year Obama was elected president means Democrats have to defend twice as many Senate seats as Republicans. The problems caused by Obamacare and the concern over Russian aggression — as well as lingering scandals — have made the landscape even more treacherous for Democrats.

I mentioned Reagan's problems in the 1986 midterms — and his approval rating before the election was more than 60%.

Dwight Eisenhower's Republicans lost 13 Senate seats and 48 House seats in 1958 — and Ike's approval rating was in the 50s.

Even Franklin D. Roosevelt wasn't immune. His popularity was in the 50s prior to the 1938 midterms, but his Democrats lost six Senate seats and 71 House seats.

Now, I realize that politicians have to project a sense of urgency to get a response from their usually reliable financial backers. Perhaps that is what Obama was doing in Miami — just stirrin' things up, hoping for a reaction. He must know that midterms are seldom kind to sixth–year presidencies, and it usually takes extraordinary circumstances to change that.

Obama's job approval will have a direct bearing on what happens on Election Day.

Based on Gallup's latest numbers (Obama at 43% approval), the president has a lot to do.

Does he have enough time to do it?

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