What Really Matters in Midterm Elections?

Hint: It’s not gaffes.

National Journal
Emma Roller
July 14, 2014, 1 a.m.

It’s a well-worn piece of con­ven­tion­al wis­dom: The eco­nomy is the dom­in­ant factor in pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. But what about in midterm years?

It’s easy to get caught up in the gaffe-of-the-day cov­er­age that con­gres­sion­al cam­paigns at­tract, but if you want to have a good handle on the state of the midterm elec­tions, it’s more use­ful to think about the fun­da­ment­als. As Ezra Klein wrote in 2010, “We think of cam­paigns in terms of people, but they’re of­ten de­cided by cir­cum­stances.”

For midterms, the eco­nomy may not mat­ter as much as you’d think. But while the state of the eco­nomy may not be the de­cid­ing factor in midterms, as it of­ten is dur­ing pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, it’s of­ten the is­sue at the fore­front of voters’ minds.

His­tor­ic­ally, un­em­ploy­ment hasn’t had much of an im­pact on pres­id­en­tial-party losses in the midterms; but it re­mains the most sens­it­ive is­sue to many voters.A Feb­ru­ary Gal­lup Poll found that un­em­ploy­ment is the most im­port­ant is­sue to voters this cycle, fol­lowed closely by the gen­er­al state of the eco­nomy.

Not all eco­nom­ic in­dic­at­ors, however, are cre­ated equal. John Sides, a polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity, has found that the big­ger the in­crease in dis­pos­able in­come from the year be­fore, the more likely voters are to vote for the in­cum­bent party.”In con­gres­sion­al elec­tions, just as in pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, the pres­id­ent and his party are not pun­ished for run­ning up the debt. They are pun­ished for a weak eco­nomy,” Sides wrote four years ago.

So, how have these eco­nom­ic factors in­flu­enced past midterm elec­tions? The ob­vi­ous ex­ample is 2010, when the af­ter­shocks of the 2008 re­ces­sion helped lead to a surge of tea-party can­did­ates, and led Re­pub­lic­ans to gain con­trol of the House, which they still en­joy. Look­ing at gen­er­ic vote bal­lots for this year, Demo­crats could gain ground in the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives, but likely not enough to make up their 17-seat de­fi­cit. Oth­er eco­nom­ists pre­dict a small swing for House Re­pub­lic­ans in 2014 — though noth­ing ap­proach­ing the tid­al wave of 2010.

Alan Ab­ramow­itz, a polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist at Emory Uni­versity, says even a stel­lar eco­nomy does not trans­late in­to an auto­mat­ic midterm win for the pres­id­ent’s party — there are al­ways in­ter­ven­ing factors. “It’s not all about the eco­nomy,” Ab­ramow­itz told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “The one thing is, if you have a re­ces­sion, the pres­id­ent’s party is in­ev­it­ably go­ing to do badly … really bad eco­nom­ic con­di­tions are al­most al­ways go­ing to hurt the pres­id­ent’s party.”

In­ter­ven­ing factors — like a hugely un­pop­u­lar war — can hurt parties as much or more than the state of the eco­nomy. In 1966, for ex­ample, Demo­crats lost mem­bers in Con­gress be­cause they had many seats to de­fend and an un­pop­u­lar pres­id­ent’s war (LBJ, Vi­et­nam) to deal with. Sim­il­arly, in 1986 (and 2006, for that mat­ter) it wasn’t the eco­nomy that hurt Re­pub­lic­ans, so much as Pres­id­ent Bush’s fall­ing ap­prov­al rat­ing due to an un­pop­u­lar war in the Middle East.

Go­ing by the sys­tem­ic factors that in­flu­ence midterms year in and year out, Re­pub­lic­ans seems to have the ad­vant­age this year. Re­pub­lic­ans are his­tor­ic­ally more likely to turn out dur­ing midterm years, though that ef­fect was sup­pressed in years where an un­pop­u­lar Re­pub­lic­an was in the White House.

Thomas Mann, a seni­or fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, says that while jobs have grown im­press­ively, wages have not. “Whatever hap­pens na­tion­ally — which is re­flec­ted in pres­id­en­tial job ap­prov­al and gen­er­al meas­ures of eco­nom­ic growth and health — is go­ing to play un­evenly across these vari­ous dis­tricts and states,” he told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

Still, most voters have likely already made up their minds about the gen­er­al state of the eco­nomy. “It’s late enough now — Ju­ly — to know that it would be hard to really im­prove the sub­ject­ive feel­ings of voters about how the eco­nomy is do­ing,” Mann said.

An­oth­er prob­lem for Demo­crats is that the more seats a party has to de­fend, the more likely it is to lose. This year, Demo­crats have to de­fend 21 seats in the Sen­ate, sev­en of which are in states that voted for Mitt Rom­ney in 2012. Re­pub­lic­ans need to flip just six seats to re­gain con­trol of the Sen­ate. And thanks to in­creas­ing po­lar­iz­a­tion, it’s harder than ever to win a dis­trict where your party is in the minor­ity.

It’s dif­fi­cult to pre­dict each seat be­cause eco­nom­ic con­di­tions fluc­tu­ate from dis­trict to dis­trict, but des­pite the gen­er­al state of the eco­nomy — re­cov­er­ing, but slowly — voters gen­er­ally feel as pess­im­ist­ic about it today as they did in Janu­ary. And, per­haps more than any ob­ject­ive eco­nom­ic in­dices, those sub­ject­ive feel­ings give cre­dence to the idea that the Re­pub­lic­ans will re­tain con­trol of the House and gain con­trol of the Sen­ate come next Janu­ary.

In midterm years, the pres­id­ent’s party al­most al­ways loses seats in Con­gress. More con­found­ing to Demo­crats is the fact that some of their core con­stitu­ents — young voters, minor­ity voters, and single wo­men — are less likely to turn out dur­ing midterm elec­tions.

Voter pess­im­ism about the eco­nomy, com­bined with Obama’s low ap­prov­al, spell bad news for Demo­crats come Novem­ber. However, those factors may turn in­to a sil­ver lin­ing for Demo­crats in 2016. Two Har­vard re­search­ers re­cently found that, his­tor­ic­ally, it takes about eight years for postre­ces­sion eco­nom­ies to reach the pre­crisis level of in­come. So while Demo­crats may lose out this fall, voters may be back to en­joy­ing their prere­ces­sion in­comes in time for the next pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. And wheth­er in­di­vidu­al cam­paigns or more sys­tem­ic factors are to thank, Demo­crats will be poised to reap the re­ward.