Saturday, November 1, 2014

Prepare Yourself for the Sixth-Year Itch

When I was growing up, political observers spoke of Election Day as if an invisible army of voters marched to the polls on that one day. It was often referred to, informally, as Decision Day.

But since the advent of early voting, Election Day really is more of a deadline, a finish line if you will. Election Day in the United States is on November 4 this year. In most states, voters have been trickling in for weeks. For the most part, I guess the only ones left who haven't voted really are undecided — or they have been prevented from voting early for any of a number of reasons, like work or illness or family obligations.

In short, the decisions have probably already been made in many places. We just won't know the outcomes until sometime Tuesday night when the official counts are known.

And so the suspense, such as it is, continues.

There is no suspense in the House. Republicans are all but sure to retain the majority, perhaps even add to it. Conventional wisdom holds, though, that Republicans probably already control nearly all of the districts in which (officially or unofficially) Republicans outnumber Democrats. After the 2010 midterms, Republicans held 242 House seats, their highest number since the first Truman midterm in 1946, when the GOP held 246 seats.

Two years ago, the Republicans lost eight seats in the House so their total now is 234, which is still greater than the number of seats Republicans held after the 1994 midterms. They would need a net gain of 12 seats to match their postwar high.

I don't really pay much attention to House races besides the one in my own district. They aren't very good barometers of national trends or moods. They're primarily local races, especially in the big cities where they may cover only a few square miles — as opposed to the mostly rural Arkansas district in which I grew up, which encompassed (and still does) several counties. However large or small they may be geographically, a district's issues tend to be local in nature. What matters to voters here in Dallas County, Texas, probably will not matter at all to folks in King County, Washington, or Franklin County, Missouri.

So I don't spend much time on House races — unless there is clearly an illogical imbalance that seems likely to be reversed. There was a time, earlier in this election cycle, when the popular mindset among Democrats was that they would hold the Senate and perhaps seize a majority in the House. Those hopes took a pounding when Republicans won a special election to fill a House vacancy left by the death of the Republican incumbent, who had won more than 20 consecutive elections. Democrats believed they had a good chance to win the seat because the district voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 — and the idea of making that seat flip fueled hopes of an unlikely midterm shift in the direction of the president's party.

No one spoke of that after the special election. Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball, which is almost always accurate in its predictions, says the GOP is on course to gain nine seats, which would create the Republicans' second–highest total since World War II, eclipsing the number of seats the Republican held after the 2010 midterms.

There is no real suspense in this year's House races, except for a handful of districts, many of which are open seats.

There is, however, a lot of suspense surrounding Senate races. The Republicans need to win six seats to seize control of the chamber. Five would produce a 50–50 split, and, since vice presidents vote in case of a tie, a vote that goes straight down party lines would end up voting the way Democrats want because Joe Biden would break the tie.

The only way Republicans can avoid that is to win an outright majority. That seemed much more problematic for them a year or so ago, but today Sabato says Republicans are likely to win between five and eight Senate seats. He says it is all but certain Republicans will win open seats in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, which have been generally conceded to Republicans for months now, as well as the seat in Arkansas.

Sabato also thinks Republicans are in a position to win Democrat–held seats in Alaska, Colorado and Iowa, but polls have been showing those races as neck and neck.

And, to further complicate matters, there are those races in Louisiana, Georgia and Kansas. Louisiana and Georgia could go to overtime, so to speak, if no one wins 50% of the vote on Tuesday. In Kansas, the incumbent Republican is facing a serious challenge from an independent who has been coy about which party with whom he would caucus if elected.

Republicans insist that North Carolina Democrat Kay Hagan is in trouble — indeed, recent polls show her lead within the margin of error. Heading into the final weekend of the campaign, the North Carolina race is regarded as too close to call.

As I have been saying all along, a president's approval rating is always a factor in any midterm election — but especially when it is a president's second midterm election. I'm sure everyone remembers the 2010 midterm election, when Republicans took more than 50 seats from the Democrats. Barack Obama's approval rating was in the mid–40s just before that election. It's two or three points lower than that now.

OK, let's look at the approval ratings for presidents who were midway through their second terms. That doesn't apply to everyone, of course — only those presidents who were in office for two midterm elections. One–term presidents like Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush are excluded.

In 2006, George W. Bush's approval rating was mostly in the upper 30s when voters went to the polls. Democrats gained a net of six Senate seats and 30 House seats in that election.

In 1998, Bill Clinton's approval rating was in the 60s just before the election. He managed to buck the trend of the so–called six–year itch, in large part because of the public's perception of congressional Republicans having overreached in their attempt to impeach Clinton. The numbers in the Senate were unchanged as each party took three seats from the other. Democrats won a net of five seats in the House.

In 1986, Ronald Reagan's approval rating was in the 60s when the elections were held, but his party still lost eight seats in the Senate and five seats in the House.

In 1974, Gerald Ford had to preside over the midterms in the wake of Watergate and Richard Nixon's resignation. Ford's approval rating plummeted after he pardoned Nixon, but it was still in the upper 40s, even lower 50s when the elections were held. In what was likely more backlash against Nixon (as well as Ford's pardon), voters gave Democrats 49 House seats that had been held by Republicans and three Senate seats.

In 1966, Lyndon Johnson was in office for his first midterm, but it was the second of the Kennedy–Johnson years. Johnson had been elected by a landslide in 1964, but the public mood had soured in the subsequent two years, and Johnson's approval rating was in the mid–40s. Johnson's Democrats lost 47 House seats and three Senate seats.

President Eisenhower was pretty popular through most of his presidency. In 1958, his approval rating was in the low to mid–50s, but that didn't help his party in his sixth–year midterm. Republicans lost 48 House seats and 13 Senate seats.

Harry Truman wasn't elected to two terms, but, after succeeding Franklin D. Roosevelt three months into his fourth term, it was pretty close. He was president during the midterm of 1946 and again during the midterm of 1950. His approval rating in late October 1950 closely mirrors Obama's today. Democrats lost 28 House seats and five Senate seats.

That is the trend just since the end of World War II, but it has been repeated throughout American history. Prior to the end of World War II, the last two–term president whose party did not lose ground in both chambers of Congress in the sixth–year midterm was Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, who succeeded the assassinated President William McKinley in the first year of his second term. In what would have been the second midterm of McKinley's presidency (and the first of Roosevelt's), Republicans did gain ground in both the House and Senate.

All that predates approval rating polls; we do know, however, that Roosevelt's party won three Senate seats in the 1906 midterm but lost 28 House seats. And Woodrow Wilson's Democrats lost ground in both chambers in 1918. Eight years later, in the sixth–year midterm of the Harding–Coolidge administration, Republicans lost ground in both the House and Senate.

Even Franklin D. Roosevelt's Democrats lost ground in the House and Senate in the second midterm of his presidency in 1938, two years after he was re–elected by a landslide.

The odds are always against an incumbent president's party in the second midterm of his presidency. To beat the six–year itch, a president has to have phenomenal approval ratings, which Obama doesn't have, and extremely favorable domestic and foreign conditions, which he obviously doesn't have.

I'm going to predict that Republicans win the Senate seats in (1) the three states that have been conceded to them all along — Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia — plus (2) the Democrat–held Senate seats in Arkansas, Louisiana, Colorado, Georgia and Iowa. I also think they will hold on to the seats in Kansas and Georgia. The Louisiana and Georgia races might come down to a runoff, but, in the end, I think the Republicans will prevail.

I think Kay Hagan might be re–elected in North Carolina simply because she appears to have run a smarter race than most of her colleagues.

Thus, my prediction is that Republicans will gain eight Senate seats — enough to give them the majority in both chambers of Congress.

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