A History of Midterm Elections

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Podcast Transcript

Every four years, Americans go to polling places where they do NOT decide who will be President of the United States

These elections usually aren’t given as much historical attention as presidential elections. Nonetheless, they can be extremely important and can influence a president’s agenda.

Learn more about the history of midterm elections and how they have influenced US history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

In a parliamentary system, elections can be held at almost anytime. When a parliamentary election is held, everything is on the ballot all at once. Every member of parliament is up for election, and by extension, the Prime Minister and all the cabinet positions will be determined as well. 

Other than perhaps local or district elections, there is no such thing as an election between the elections. 

In the American system, national elections are set according to the calendar. Moreover, members of the House of Representatives have a two-year term, the President has a four-year term, and Senators have a six-year term. 

The result of these staggered term lengths is that every four years, you have a major election where the president is not up for election, but every member of the house and a third of the Senate is up for election.

These elections, which take place in the middle of a Presidential term, are known as midterm elections. 

Midterm elections traditionally don’t get the same amount of attention as elections that take place during a presidential election year. This is true for both historians and voters. 

Voter turnout during a presidential election year has traditionally hovered around 60%, whereas the turnout in a midterm election is usually traditionally only about 40%.

Because the president is not on the ballot, midterm elections have largely been considered a referendum on the president. 

Since the country was founded, there have been 109 midterm elections. 

As the results for the 109th election aren’t in yet as I’m recording this episode, I’m going to focus on the first 108 midterm elections.

The history of midterm elections can broadly be broken into two periods. The first period consists of the nine elections which took place between 1790 and 1822. The second period consists of 1826 to the present. 

If you remember back to the episode on the Six Political Eras in American history, this first period of midterm elections corresponds to the first political era when the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans were the two major parties. 

There were nine midterm elections held during this first period. What makes these first nine midterms different is the fact that in eight of the nine elections, the party of the sitting president picked up seats in the house. Also, in eight of the nine elections, the party of the president gained, or at least didn’t lose seats, in the Senate.

The only time the president’s party lost seats in the house was the election of 1794 when George Washington’s Federalists lost four seats in the house. 

Likewise, in 1814, the midterm election during James Madison’s second term, the Democrat-Republicans lost three senate seats. 

Of special note are the elections of 1802 and 1822

In the 1802 election, in the first term of Thomas Jefferson, his party gained 35 seats in the house. In the 1822 election, in the second term of James Monore, his party gained 34 seats. 

In the case of the 1822 election, this was in the middle of the Era of Good Feelings, where the country was basically a one-party state because the Federalists had fallen apart. 

After the election of 1822, midterm elections forever changed.  This was the beginning of the second political era which ushered in a new era of partisanship. 

The defining characteristic of the 100 elections held since 1826 is that the party of the sitting president has lost seats in the House of Representatives in 94 of those elections…and in one of those six elections, it was a draw.

This doesn’t mean that control of the house changed, but it does mean that the power of the sitting president’s party decreased. 

If midterm elections are a referendum on a sitting president, it means that support for the president decreases 94% of the time. 

What were the six elections where a president’s party didn’t lose seats in the house?

The first was in 1834 during the second Andrew Jackson administration when he neither gained nor lost any seats. This is the only time that has happened in US history. 

The next time a President’s party gained seats was in 1866, during the very unpopular Andrew Johnson administration. This was a unique case because Johnson assumed the presidency when Lincoln died, yet he was a Democrat, whereas Lincoln was a Republican.

So, you could think of Johnson’s nine-seat increase as really being a nine-seat decrease for Lincoln. 

The next time a president’s party gained seats was in 1902, during the first Theodore Roosevelt administration. The Republicans gained nine seats, with no change in the Senate. 

The fourth time it happened was in 1934, during the first administration of Franklin Roosevelt. Here too, he gained only nine seats in the house but a huge nine seats in the Senate.

The fifth time was in 1998, when during the second Bill Clinton administration, the Democrats picked up four seats in the house, and the last time it happened was in 2002 when Republicans picked up nine seats in the house in the first George W. Bush administration. 

So, even in the few times that a president’s party didn’t lose seats, the number they picked up was so small that they could be counted on your hands. 

The same trends don’t quite hold as well with the Senate. Because only a third of the Senate is up for election, and because for most of US history, Senators weren’t popularly elected, there were more elections where the president’s party picked up seats. 

Since the end of the Second World War, the sitting president’s party has, on average, lost 26 seats in the House and four seats in the Senate. 

While losing seats is the norm in a midterm election, what have been the biggest drubbings in history?

The most lopsided midterm defeat was one that I previously mentioned in my episode on the Panic of 1893. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland’s Democrats lost 127 seats in the House of Representatives and four seats in the Senate. 

This election represented a major political realignment in the United States which resulted in the McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft administrations that were to follow. 

What is sort of funny is that the midterm election just before in 1890 was the second biggest drubbing for an incumbent president’s party. 

This time it was the other way around. President Benjamin Harrison’s Republican party lost 93 seats to the Democrats.  This was also due to a recession, the Panic of 1890, which was not as bad as the Panic of 1893, but the timing of it with the election had maximum impact. 

Perhaps the biggest repudiation of a president in a midterm election took place in 1874 in the second Ulysses S grant administration. The Republicans that year also suffered a 93-seat loss in the house and a ten-seat loss in the Senate.  

The Grant administration was notoriously corrupt, and with the Democrat-leaning Southern states admitted back to the Union, it was an inevitable backlash to Republican hegemony after the civil war.

Both of those numbers of seat losses are the second largest total ever, but in 1874 both the house and the senate were much smaller due to fewer states being in the union. 

That makes the midterm election of 1874 the worst midterm election in terms percentage of seats lost.

The 20th century hasn’t seen any midterm elections as bad as those in the 19th century. 

There have been six midterm elections since 1900 where the president’s party lost more than 50 house seats. 

William Taft’s Republicans lost 56 seats in 1919, Woodrow Wilson’s Democrats lost 61 seats in 1914, Warren Harding’s Republicans lost 77 seats in 1922, Herbert Hoover’s Republicans lost 52 seats in 1930, Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats lost 72 seats in 1938, Harry Truman’s Democrats lost 54 in 1946, Bill Clinton’s Democrat’s lost 54 seats in 1994, and Barak Obama’s Democrat’s lost 63 seats in 2010. 

There were also two 48-seat drops by Republicans in 1958 under Dwight Eisenhower and in 1978 under Gerald Ford. 

In addition to the party of the sitting president losing seats in congress, the effect is usually more pronounced during a president’s second term and has been dubbed the six-year itch.

With 94% of all midterm elections over the last 200 years resulting in a loss of seats for the party of the sitting president, the midterm effect is one of the surest things in American politics. 

Even in the few cases when it didn’t happen, the effect was very slight in the opposite direction. 

I don’t know who the President of the United States will be in the year 2044 or what political party they will belong to. However, I’d be willing to bet money that their party will probably lose seats in Congress in 2046.