The President’s party almost always loses Congressional seats in midterm elections. On average, the Presidential party in power loses over 30 House seats and 3 to 4 Senate seats. This article has an analysis of those results and the rare exceptions.
Scroll to the bottom of this article to read an update from writer Howard Tanzman with the 2018 Midterm Election results known.
House of Representatives
Republicans have lost in seats in nineteen out of the twenty-one mid-term elections with Republican presidents since the Civil War. Under President Grant, Republicans lost over 30 seats in the 1870 midterms and over 90 in the 1874 election. And the House had under 300 seats in those years, compared with the 435 we have today. This was the largest loss for any Republican president during the 1800s. A major factor was the transition of the South into a solid Democratic block after the Civil War. The South remained a majority Democratic region for over 100 years, well into the 1980s. The Republicans experienced three large losses in the 20th century:
- 1910: Under Howard Taft, there was a split in the Republican Party between progressives and conservatives
- 1922: Under Warren G. Harding, the Republicans had made significant gains in 1918 and 1920 from dissatisfaction with President Wilson and controversies over the Treaty of Versailles/League of Nations. The result in 1922 was a partial reversal of those gains.
- 1974: Under Gerald Ford, this was a direct result of the Watergate scandal.
There have been two midterms under Republican presidents where the Republicans gained seats in the House. One was 1902, but that gain was the result of an increase in the size of the House after the 1900 census. In 2002, under President George W. Bush, the Republicans gained eight seats. This is attributable to the support the President gained after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The pattern holds true when there is a Democratic president. Since the Civil War, there have been sixteen midterm elections with Democratic presidents. The Democrats lost seats in fourteen of those elections. Major Democratic reversals occurred in these years:
- 1918: Under Woodrow Wilson, the dissatisfaction with the President and World War I
- 1938 and 1942: Under FDR, the Democrats lost over 70 seats in 1938 and over 40 in 1942. The causes of the first result included a recession in 1937 and a backlash against FDR’s “court packing” scheme. The second reflected concerns over World War II. Even with these losses, Democrats maintained control of the House because of the huge majorities they had won earlier in the 1930s.
- 1994: Under Bill Clinton, the Democrats lost over 50 seats, which gave control of the House back to the Republicans for the first time in over 40 years. Factors included concerns over Clinton’s proposed healthcare reform and ongoing Whitewater – and other – Clinton scandals.
- 2010: Under Barack Obama, Republicans took control of the House and won over 60 seats. Causes included opposition to the Affordable Care Act, the Tea Party movement, and a slow recovery from the economic recession.
The Democrats picked up seats twice in a midterm election when there was a Democratic President. Once was 1934 under FDR, considered an endorsement of the New Deal. The other was 1998 under Bill Clinton; exit polls showed that many voters opposed the impeachment of Clinton, which may explain the unusual result.
Analyzing midterm Senate results is more complicated than the House. Until 1914, Senators were appointed by State Legislatures, not elected by popular vote. And in any given year, only one-third of Senators are up for election. Nonetheless, the pattern is similar: the non-presidential party tends to gain seats during midterm elections.
In twelve midterm elections since 1914 with Republican presidents, the Republicans lost seats in the Senate nine times. The exceptions were 1970 under President Nixon, 1982 under Reagan, and 2002 under George W. Bush. Like the 2002 House results, 9/11 played a role in the support Republicans received.
There have been fourteen midterm elections with Democratic presidents since 1914. The Democratic party lost Senate seats in eleven of them. The exceptions were 1934, 1962, and 1998.
1934 reflected support for FDR’s New Deal. The 1962 election was held shortly after the end of the Cuban Missile Crises, which may have helped Democrats pick up seats. And 1998 may have shown voter opposition to the impeachment of President Clinton.
Implications for 2018
Financial investments always have this disclaimer:
“Past Performance is No Guarantee of Future Results”
With the volatile political environment of 2018, that statement certainly applies to the upcoming election. Next week, we will have the answer and find out whether the pattern of the presidential party losing Congressional seats will continue.
UPDATE: 2018 Midterms in Perspective
As of Wednesday morning, the Democrats were projected to win 30 – 35 seats in the House of Representatives. This is in line with the overall historical averages for the opposition party in a mid-term election. This pick-up is a bit larger when compared to the first midterms for the most recent Republican Presidents. In 1982, with Reagan in office, the Democrats picked up 26 seats. In 1990, the first mid-term with George H.W. Bush in office, the Democrats picked up 7 seats. Finally, in 2002, George W. Bush’s Republicans actually increased their representation in the house, an exception to the general pattern.
The Democratic gain is smaller than what the Republicans achieved in the first midterms of recent Democratic Presidents. In the first midterms under President Obama, 2010, Republicans won over 60 seats. Back in 1994, Clinton’s first midterms, the Republicans won over 50 seats.
The Republicans have picked up 3 seats in the Senate, with Arizona and Montana too-close-to-call. It is unusual for the Presidential party to win seats in the midterms. You must go back to JFK in 1962 and FDR in 1934 to find previous occurrences. The Democrats faced the challenge of defending 10 Senate seats in States that had voted for Trump in 2018. This is not an unusual challenge. Back in 1982, after Reagan’s landslide Presidential victory of 1980, the Democrats had to defend 16 Senate seats in States won by Reagan. They won 14 of them. And those 2 losses were offset by flipping 2 Republican seats in States Reagan had won (New Jersey and New Mexico). In 1990, Democrats successfully defended all 12 Senate seats up for election in States George H.W. Bush had won in 1988. Democrats had less success in 2002 when they lost 2 out of 6 Senate seats in States that went for George W. Bush in 2000.
As a result, we end up with a split government, a common result. President Reagan, despite his popularity, faced a split Congress during both of his terms. As did George H.W. Bush in his one term. President Clinton’s Democratic Party controlled both houses of Congress for only 2 of his 8 years in office. George W. Bush had a Republican House and Senate for 4 of his 8 years in office, but President Obama faced a split Congress for his last 6 years in office. After 2 years of Republican control, now President Trump will be working with a divided Congress.