Misreading the Election Tea Leaves
It goes without saying that November 7, 2006, will be viewed by history as a bad day for the Republican Party. The question is, how bad?
Despite suggestions by an exuberant media that this Democrat victory represented a significant change in the political makeup of the country, the reality is that it is way too early to come to any such sweeping conclusions. That didn’t stop Joe Klein from getting the misreading of the tea leaves-ball rolling in Time’s November 20 cover story:
This was a big deal. Certainly, it was the end of George W. Bush’s radical experiment in partisan governance. It might have been even bigger than that: the end of the conservative pendulum swing that began with Ronald Reagan’s revolution. [emphasis added]
Not to be upstaged, one of the New York Times’ top liberal shills, Paul Krugman, asserted similarly in a November 10 TimesSelect column:
But we may be seeing the downfall of movement conservatism—the potent alliance of wealthy individuals, corporate interests and the religious right that took shape in the 1960s and 1970s. This alliance may once have had something to do with ideas, but it has become mainly a corrupt political machine, and America will be a better place if that machine breaks down. [emphasis added]
As people familiar with Krugman’s work know, facts are not his strong point, or even necessary if fabrications better support the position he’s striving to advance. Despite his groundless assertions, or Klein’s, the results last Tuesday were actually quite in keeping with what typically happens in the midterm elections, especially during a president’s second term.
Just the Facts, Ma’am
To get an idea of just how bad Congressional elections can be after a president gets re-elected, one needn’t look further than 1938, for in the midst of multi-decade Democrat control, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had his worst showing at the polls during the sixth year of his presidency.
In fairness, his Party easily retained Congress. However, in the 1938 elections, the Democrats lost seven seats in the Senate, and an astounding 81 seats in the House. Bear in mind that this followed Roosevelt’s historic victory in 1936 when he became one of the few presidents to be re-elected while gaining seats in both chambers.
This is significant inasmuch as George W. Bush accomplished this same feat in 2004, leading some to suggest that this was a realigning election giving the Republicans huge momentum for future domination at the polls – much as the Democrats enjoyed after 1932. It is therefore noteworthy that both the Democrats and the Republicans did quite poorly in the elections immediately following the most recent instances of this rare political phenomenon.
Another interesting year to look at is 1946, when the Republicans picked up an amazing 20 seats in the Senate and 55 in the House, to give the G.O.P. their first control of Congress since 1932. Harry S Truman’s first midterms were a disaster for his party, but their significance was how short-lived. The Democrats picked up nine seats in the Senate and 75 in the House two years later to wrest Congressional control right back. Harry Truman famously campaigned for re-election to fight a “do-nothing Congress” and it worked.
The 1938 and 1946 midterms therefore effectively demonstrated that it is not at all uncommon after a realigning election for there to be several cycles when the momentum party does poorly at the polls. And, as is particulary germane given what transpired on Tuesday, such failures don’t necessarily indicate a shift in the nation’s ethos.
Moving forward, in Truman’s second midterm elections in 1950, the Democrats lost five seats in the Senate and 28 in the House. Dwight Eisenhower’s Republicans in his second midterm in 1958 lost eight seats in the Senate and 48 in the House. Though certainly Watergate-related, Richard Nixon’s Republicans in 1974 lost four seats in the Senate, and 48 in the House in what would have been his second midterm if he hadn’t resigned.
Ronald Reagan’s Republicans in 1986 lost five seats in the House and an astounding eight in the Senate during his second midterm. And, Bill Clinton’s Democrats in 1998 gained five seats in the House, while losing three in the Senate during his.
As such, in the modern era, these second term elections have typically been quite hard on the Party in the White House. With that in mind, for last Tuesday’s results to become anything more significant than the normal sixth-year jinx, the Democrats are probably going to have to keep the Congress in 2008, and at the same time take over 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Anything short of that, and 2006 will probably be seen by history as just a bump in the road for a conservative revolution that began in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was first elected.
Facts are a Stupid Thing
Klein and Krugman had no trouble forecasting the longer term significance of a president’s second midterm elections without much reference to history. A strong performance by the Party not in the White House does not necessarily auger well for such efforts in the next cycle.
Obviously, this wasn’t the case in 1940, but Roosevelt’s running for a third term certainly confounds the data. In 1950, Truman’s Democrats faired well enough to keep control of Congress, yet Eisenhower still won the White House two years later.
After losing the House and the Senate in 1952, the Democrats took both chambers back in 1954, and kept them right into the 1960 presidential elections. As such, it’s difficult to conclude that the Democrats’ strong showing in 1958 had anything to do with John F. Kennedy’s victory in 1960. Similarly, Jimmy Carter’s victory in 1976 likely had more to do with Watergate than the Democrats’ strong showing in the 1974 midterms.
On the other hand, the Republicans’ poor showing in 1986 certainly had no impact on George H. W. Bush taking the White House in 1988. And, the Democrats’ fairly good showing in 1998 didn’t portend anything of substance for Al Gore’s presidential run, although he did win the popular vote.
Finally, it would be interesting to see whether a sixth-year midterm victory carries with it any momentum into the next Congressional cycle. Such was not the case in 1940 when the Republicans picked up five seats in the Senate, lost seven in the House, and continued to be the minority Party in both chambers despite a very strong showing in the previous elections. However, after a strong Republican showing in 1950, the GOP followed this up by taking both chambers in 1952, as Eisenhower brought with him a huge coattail.
After the fabulous showing by the Democrats in 1958, they lost a seat in the Senate, and twenty in the House as the nation elected President Kennedy. A somewhat similar result occurred in 1976, when after a fabulous election in 1974, the Democrats were only able to add one seat in the Senate and one in the House when Carter brought with him almost no coattail.
A strong showing by the Democrats in 1986 did little for them in 1988 when they added two seats in the House, and nothing in the Senate. And, in 2000, the Republicans added only one seat in the House and actually lost five in the Senate after a mixed showing in 1998.
Adding it all up, it appears that the midterm elections in a president’s sixth year in office have virtually no predictive impact on what is going to happen two years later when the country goes to elect a new Congress and a new president. Nor is it evidence of a changing of the political guard if the minority Party is successful in taking a majority. This makes statements by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I/D-Connecticut) on Sunday’s Meet the Press all the more sage:
The fact is that this was not a major realignment election in my opinion. This was the voters in Connecticut and elsewhere saying that “We’re disappointed with the Republicans; we want to give the Democrats a chance.” But, I believe that the American people are considering both major political parties to be in a kind of probation, because they’re, they’re understandably angry that Washington is dominated too much by partisan political games and not enough by problem-solving and patriotism, which means “Put the country and your state first.” [emphasis added]
Nicely said, Senator. Sadly, we shouldn’t expect the Democrats or their media minions to care much for impartial analysis or sound historical reference as they continue their victory laps in the days and months to come.