Six-Year Itch Plagues Presidents in Midterms

History shows that midterm elections are usually bad for the president’s party.

HONOLULU, HI - DECEMBER 31: U.S. President Barack Obama exits Island Snow at Kailua Beach Center where he, daughters Sasha, Malia and friends and family went for Shave Ice on December 31, 2013 in Honolulu, Hawaii. The First Family is in Hawaii for the winter holidays. 
National Journal
Charlie Cook
Jan. 6, 2014, 4:59 p.m.

It is as cer­tain as the sun com­ing up in the morn­ing. Whenev­er I (or any oth­er polit­ic­al ana­lyst) be­gin to de­scribe po­ten­tial dy­nam­ics in an up­com­ing elec­tion cycle by cit­ing his­tor­ic­al pat­terns and tend­en­cies, “the look” ap­pears. With some it is eye-rolling. Oth­ers shake their heads or sud­denly just look bored. But it al­most al­ways hap­pens.

For ex­ample, look­ing ahead to the 2014 midterm elec­tions, the pat­tern of second-term, midterm elec­tions shows sig­ni­fic­ant losses for the party in the White House. These losses have oc­curred in five out of six such elec­tions since the end of World War II, av­er­aging six Sen­ate and 29 House seats. But when this is poin­ted out, “the look” ap­pears. It is as if the listen­er is say­ing, “How could the situ­ation fa­cing Re­pub­lic­ans in 1958 un­der Dwight Eis­en­hower, or in 1974 un­der Nix­on-Ford, or Ron­ald Re­agan in 1986 or George W. Bush in 2006, pos­sibly have rel­ev­ance in 2014?” Or, “How could those losses for Demo­crats un­der Kennedy-John­son in 1966 or Bill Clin­ton in 1998 pos­sibly ap­ply to the party’s situ­ation with Pres­id­ent Obama this year?” Of course, all of these pri­or cir­cum­stances have unique as­pects that set them apart from 2014 or any oth­er elec­tion year, but there is a real pat­tern worth pay­ing at­ten­tion to.

Sen­ate losses in these elec­tions, dubbed “six-year itch” elec­tions by Re­pub­lic­an polit­ic­al ana­lyst Kev­in Phil­lips, totaled four seats in 1966 and 1974, six years in­to the bi­furc­ated Kennedy-John­son and Nix­on-Ford ad­min­is­tra­tions. And Sen­ate losses totaled six seats in the most re­cent, the 2006 George W. Bush second midterm. Eight seats were lost in 1986, and 12 in Dwight Eis­en­hower’s 1958 “six-year itch” elec­tion. Reach­ing back fur­ther in Amer­ic­an his­tory, there were a total of 72 seats lost in the House un­der FDR in 1938. In terms of the House, the low­est num­ber of losses was five seats in 1986, fol­lowed by 30 seats for Bush in 2006. There were three 48-seat losses in 1958, 1966, and 1974.

The only ex­cep­tions to the “six-year itch” pat­tern in the post-World War II era both oc­curred in 1998, when the back­lash against the Re­pub­lic­an im­peach­ment of Pres­id­ent Clin­ton turned in­to a wash in the Sen­ate and five-seat gain in the House.

It is true that midterm elec­tions, wheth­er they oc­cur in the first or second term, are usu­ally bad for the pres­id­ent’s party. A look at the in­valu­able Vi­tal Stat­ist­ics on Con­gress shows that go­ing back as far as 1862, only in 1934, 1998, and 2002 did a pres­id­ent not lose ground in the House. (It’s worth not­ing that in 1902, the party in power, the Re­pub­lic­ans, gained nine seats, but the size of the House was in­creased in that elec­tion and Demo­crats gained more seats in the newly en­larged cham­ber.) Since the dir­ect elec­tion of sen­at­ors began, the only midterm elec­tions that did not res­ult in a loss of Sen­ate seats for the pres­id­ent’s party were in 1934, 1962, 1970, 1998, and 2002, with the ex­cep­tions in 1998 in the House and Sen­ate at­trib­uted to the GOP’s at­tempts at pres­id­en­tial im­peach­ment, and 2002’s to the af­teref­fects of 9/11.

Ar­gu­ably, the massive eight-seat loss for Re­pub­lic­ans in 1986 was more of a re­bound for Demo­crats fol­low­ing the GOP’s enorm­ous gains in the 1980 Re­agan land­slide over Jimmy Carter.

Ob­vi­ously, Amer­ic­an voters do not have the date of each second-term, midterm elec­tion circled on their cal­en­dars to kick the party in the White House. But the nov­elty, en­ergy, and ex­cite­ment of newly elec­ted pres­id­ents tends to dis­sip­ate in their second terms. We nor­mally see a scarcity of new (good) ideas, and, to put it bluntly, a level of fa­tigue starts to plague the re­la­tion­ship between a pres­id­ent and the elect­or­ate. State­ments, de­cisions, and policies from the first term can come back to haunt the ad­min­is­tra­tion dur­ing second terms. Cer­tainly, “If you like your health in­sur­ance, you can keep it” might be a nom­in­ee in this cat­egory. Bad things tend to hap­pen once a pres­id­ent reaches his second term, be they scan­dals, un­pop­u­lar wars, eco­nom­ic down­turns, or whatever. Think about play­ing the mu­sic­al-chairs game, over and over again. The more times you play the game, the great­er your chances of be­ing the odd per­son left stand­ing. We can see this in the way many may­ors or gov­ernors who stay in of­fice more than two terms of­ten end up with un­pleas­ant res­ults.

Even when the oc­cu­pant of the White House is dif­fer­ent from six years earli­er, as in the case of Lyn­don John­son or Ger­ald Ford, voters see the ad­min­is­tra­tion as fun­da­ment­ally the same, re­gard­less of who is liv­ing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Voters be­come dis­gruntled and in­creas­ingly re­cept­ive to a “time for change” mes­sage, which also ex­plains why the party hold­ing the White House was kicked out after two terms in 1960, 1968, 1976, 2000, and 2008. The only post-WWII time the party pre­vi­ously in power held for a third term was in 1988, after eight years of Re­agan.

This pat­tern cer­tainly doesn’t in­dic­ate an in­ev­it­able out­come, but it cer­tainly isn’t ac­ci­dent­al or co­in­cid­ent­al. It is just the mani­fest­a­tion of the laws — or at min­im­um, strong tend­en­cies — of hu­man nature and polit­ics. It doesn’t al­ways hap­pen. It doesn’t have to hap­pen. But it usu­ally does.