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.

Source: The Rhodes–Cook Letter, October, 2014

Document Outline
The President’s Party in Midterm Elections

The President’s Party in Midterm Elections

As for the other side of Capitol Hill, Democrats publicly expressed hopes for winning back the House in 2014. But it was never really in the cards. Congressional redistricting after the 2010 census favored the Republicans. The GOP has a small army of well–heeled incumbents on the fall ballot. And this year’s primaries did not roil the waters. They sent only three Republican House members (plus one Democrat) to the sidelines.

But arguably the most compelling factor working against House Democrats has been history. They need a net gain of 17 seats in November to reach a majority of 218, not a particularly daunting number in itself.

But it definitely is when one looks at the last century and a half of midterm elections. Only four times since 1862 has the president’s party netted a gain of even one House seat in a midterm. And in no midterm since the Civil War has the net gain by the president’s party exceeded nine seats, barely half of what the Democrats would need to win control of the House Nov. 4. This, again according to data published in Vital Statistics on American Politics 2011–2012.

On all four of these occasions that the president’s party scored midterm House gains, the occupant of the White House was near the height of his popularity: Theodore Roosevelt in 1902, when the GOP posted midterm gains after the House had undergone a major expansion; Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934, his first midterm held in the initial stages of the New Deal; Bill Clinton in 1998, when congressional Republicans made an ill–starred attempt to impeach him; and George W. Bush in the 2002 midterm, which was held between 9/11 and the launch of Gulf war II.

Barack Obama’s position these days is much weaker. His presidential approval rating is around 40%, down in the arid terrain where the president’s party invariably loses House seats.

To be sure, no one is predicting huge House losses for the Democrats this time – they don’t have that many vulnerable seats left after losing 63 in 2010. But hardly anyone is predicting that they will net a House seat next month either. If you find someone who does, take the bet. History says that it should be a fairly safe one.

Document Citation
Cook, R. (2014). Presidential approval and midterm voting.
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