The First Midterm: A Deeper Story

By Jim Ellis

July 18, 2017 — Much has been made about a new president’s party failing in the midterm directly after his initial national election, but the statistics aren’t quite what they seem. In the House, the average loss for the new president’s party is 26 seats in first midterm during the modern political era, in addition to dropping two Senate seats. But these numbers are misleading.

Many media stories portray the Democrats on the brink of wresting the House majority away from Republicans, and one factor supporting such a claim is the first midterm historical trend. The stories underscore that the Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats to depose the Republicans, two seats less than the average “out party” gain in similar elections.

The research stops short, however, and omits a very key point. Since President Harry S. Truman assumed office in 1945 and stood for election in his own right in 1948, 11 presidents, inclusive, have seen his party lose House seats in first midterm election. President Gerald Ford, because he was never elected to the office, is not included for purposes of this statistical exercise.

While true that the average result in these elections is a minus 26 seats for the president’s party, the six Democratic presidents: Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have averaged a 35 seat loss, while the average GOP downturn for its five post World War II elected presidents: Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush is only 15 seats.

The averages are skewed because three Democratic presidents: Johnson, Clinton, and Obama, saw massive losses during their first midterm. Democrats under President Johnson lost 47 House seats in 1966, while 54 were dropped under Clinton in 1994, and 64 when Obama had been the nation’s chief executive for two years in 2010. These numbers contrast greatly when compared to the three Republican presidents losing the most seats in their first midterms: Reagan, 26; Eisenhower, 19; and Nixon, 12.

While all presidents’ political parties have absorbed House seat losses during the first midterm vote after a particular president’s initial election, the same is not true for Senate elections. In fact, in four presidents’ first midterm (Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush), the “in party” actually added Senate seats. Presidents Kennedy and Reagan saw two-seat Senate gains, while Nixon and Bush each found Republicans increasing the size of their conference by one.

Another factor is redistricting. In three of the aforementioned presidencies, the first midterm was also a redistricting election year. Thus, the loss totals are skewed depending upon which party held the redistricting pen.

The three presidents elected in the “zero year” are the ones affected here: Kennedy, Reagan, and G.W. Bush. In their first midterms, Presidents Kennedy and Bush had an edge because their own political party held the redistricting advantage, thus controlling the pen in most states. As noted above, President Reagan experienced the highest loss of any Republican chief executive, but his is the only instance where redistricting was dominated by the opposing party. Therefore, the large 26-seat Republican loss in the first Reagan midterm was, to a considerable degree, explained by an unfavorable GOP redistricting outcome in most of the affected states.

Moving into 2018, the first midterm election under Republican President Donald Trump, these deeper historical statistics, in and of themselves, do not necessarily predict Republicans losing enough House seats to swing control to the Democrats.

Looking at the loss factor within a partisan context, and taking into account the current low number of open competitive districts where Democrats have an offensive opportunity, it is becoming clear that the challenging party must substantially exceed the average historical performance if they are to create a new majority.

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