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The conventional wisdom is that midterm election turnouts are smaller, older and whiter than their presidential year counterparts. All of which is borne out by the facts. Roughly 130 million Americans voted in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012, compared to about 90 million in the 2010 midterm election. In 2008, 53% of voters were age 45 and older, according to national exit polling, compared to 64% in the same age bracket in 2010. In 2008, 74% of voters were white, while in the midterm two years later whites comprised 77% (before falling to 72% in the presidential election of 2012).
In midterm elections, the closest thing to a nationwide popular vote is the tally for the House of Representatives. It is the only office contested in all 50 states (although to be sure, in a few districts one candidate runs unopposed and no vote is taken). The party whose House candidates have won the most votes nationally usually win the most seats, although 2012 was a conspicuous exception. The aggregate vote for Democratic House candidates two years ago exceeded the tally for GOP candidates by more than 1 million votes, although Republicans won far more seats. Congressional landslides are often created when one party’s vote surges from the previous midterm election, while the other party’s vote stays flat or even goes down. That happened when the Republicans won control of Congress in 1994 and 2010, and when Democrats briefly regained a House majority in 2006. In all three cases, the nationwide vote for the winning party spiked upward by more than 8 million House votes from the previous midterm, while the losing party lost votes.
The ability of the president’s party to limit midterm carnage is often related to the approval rating of the president. Basically, the farther it falls below 50%, the more difficult it is for his party’s more vulnerable candidates to survive. The bad news for the Democrats this year is that President Barack Obama’s approval rating is even lower than it was on the eve of the 2010 midterms, which were disastrous for the Democrats. The good news, though, is that the economy appears to be in better shape than four years ago, certainly in terms of the unemployment rate. In 2010, it hovered around 10% much of the year. The latest unemployment rate (for September 2014) is below 6%. This chart starts with the midterm election of 1962, just over a half century ago.
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