It’s hard to pick up any publication or watch any television program oriented toward politics and not be reminded of the problems facing the Republican Party. Republicans have now lost the popular vote for president in five of the past six presidential elections. The last time the GOP won 300 electoral votes was in 1988; Democrats have won 300 or more in four of the past six contests. Eighteen states plus the District of Columbia have voted Democratic in each of the past six presidential elections; those places total 242 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.
In two consecutive elections, the closest Senate races have fallen domino-like toward Democrats. In 2010, they won five of the seven races rated as toss-ups by The Cook Political Report; this year, Democrats prevailed in eight out of 10. While Republicans held onto their House majority, they lost eight seats, about a third of their 25-seat margin. Democrats actually won the national popular vote for the House. Republicans were saved by the new district boundaries they drew. The long-term demographic trends in the country look very bad for the GOP as the party is presently configured. A party built around older, white men is not well positioned for a multicultural future.
The point of all this is not to pile on Republicans (although plenty of people are doing just that these days) but to set up an argument that some factors could, or at least should, work to their benefit if they quickly get through Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) and begin to deal with their problems.
The 2014 vote is what’s known as a “six-year itch” election, with the party holding the White House usually losing a substantial number of House and Senate seats in the sixth year of its tenure. There are a variety of reasons, but at that midway point in a party’s second four years in the White House, the “in” party tends to lose energy and focus. Party leaders run out of ideas, and the “first team” in terms of personnel—the people who were there when the president took office—have often bailed out, and the second or third team is sometimes not as good. Voters tend to grow weary and to look for something different.
In the six “six-year itch” elections since World War II, the party in the White House has averaged a 29-seat loss in the House and a six-seat (actually 5.6) loss in the Senate. In 1958 (Eisenhower), 1966 (Kennedy/Johnson), and 1974 (Nixon/Ford), the party in the White House lost 48 seats; in 2006 (George W. Bush), the most recent such election, the party in power lost 30 seats. In 1986 (Reagan), the loss was just five seats, while in 1998, under Clinton, the “in” party actually gained five House seats—no doubt a backlash to Republican efforts to remove the president from office. In that same election, the Senate was a wash, and in the other five, losses ranged from four seats in 1966 and 1974 to six seats in 2006 and 12 seats in 1958.
Obviously, past results are not a guarantee of future performance: Democrats are not going into the 2014 House midterms in an overexposed position, because they took such a beating in 2010, losing 63 seats and regaining only eight seats this year. It’s hard to see how Democrats could lose the 48 seats that the “in” party lost in 1958, 1966, and 1974. Also, with the way the current lines are drawn to form so many one-party districts, it would take a heckuva wave election to move a lot of seats in either direction. The House appears to have reached a kind of a partisan equilibrium; the GOP has a good chance of holding onto control for the rest of the decade, barring self-destruction resulting in a tidal wave.
But in the Senate, with only one Republican-held seat up (Susan Collins in Maine) in a state not carried by Mitt Romney by at least 8 points, the GOP seems to have little exposure. At the same time, Democrats have four seats in states that Romney carried by 15 or more points (Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Pryor in Arkansas, Jay Rockefeller in West Virginia, and Tim Johnson in South Dakota), with two more in states that Romney won by 14 points (Max Baucus in Montana and Mark Begich in Alaska) and two others in swing states (Kay Hagan in North Carolina and Mark Warner in Virginia).
Significantly, though, as Republicans painfully learned in 2012, overexposure doesn’t necessarily mean that Democrats will lose seats. This year, Democrats had 23 seats up to only 10 for Republicans, yet Democrats managed to score a net gain of two seats, defying all odds. In 2014, Democrats are once again overexposed, with 20 seats up compared with just 13 for the GOP. At least on paper, 2014 should be an opportunity year for Senate Republicans, assuming they don’t nominate horrifically flawed, weak, or self-immolating candidates, as they did, over the strenuous objections of party leaders and strategists, in 2010 and 2012.
In the next presidential election, Democrats will have held the White House for two consecutive terms; only once in the post-World War II period (1988) has a party won the presidency three times in a row. In four elections, the two-term party lost both the electoral and popular vote; in 2000, the “in” party won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote. Statistically anyway, Republicans ought to have a better than even shot at winning the White House.
Thus, if Republicans get their act together and address the challenges that were so clearly seen last month, they should be in a position in 2014 to record strong Senate gains and to hold onto their House majority. They could even win the presidency in 2016.
This article appears in the Dec. 8, 2012, edition of National Journal as The Six-Year Itch.