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.