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.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5074) }}

What We're Following See More »
These (Supposed) Iowa and NH Escorts Tell All
9 hours ago

Before we get to the specifics of this exposé about escorts working the Iowa and New Hampshire primary crowds, let’s get three things out of the way: 1.) It’s from Cosmopolitan; 2.) most of the women quoted use fake (if colorful) names; and 3.) again, it’s from Cosmopolitan. That said, here’s what we learned:

  • Business was booming: one escort who says she typically gets two inquiries a weekend got 15 requests in the pre-primary weekend.
  • Their primary season clientele is a bit older than normal—”40s through mid-60s, compared with mostly twentysomething regulars” and “they’ve clearly done this before.”
  • They seemed more nervous than other clients, because “the stakes are higher when you’re working for a possible future president” but “all practiced impeccable manners.”
  • One escort “typically enjoy[s] the company of Democrats more, just because I feel like our views line up a lot more.”
Restoring Some Sanity to Encryption
9 hours ago

No matter where you stand on mandating companies to include a backdoor in encryption technologies, it doesn’t make sense to allow that decision to be made on a state level. “The problem with state-level legislation of this nature is that it manages to be both wildly impractical and entirely unenforceable,” writes Brian Barrett at Wired. There is a solution to this problem. “California Congressman Ted Lieu has introduced the ‘Ensuring National Constitutional Rights for Your Private Telecommunications Act of 2016,’ which we’ll call ENCRYPT. It’s a short, straightforward bill with a simple aim: to preempt states from attempting to implement their own anti-encryption policies at a state level.”

What the Current Crop of Candidates Could Learn from JFK
9 hours ago

Much has been made of David Brooks’s recent New York Times column, in which confesses to missing already the civility and humanity of Barack Obama, compared to who might take his place. In NewYorker.com, Jeffrey Frank reminds us how critical such attributes are to foreign policy. “It’s hard to imagine Kennedy so casually referring to the leader of Russia as a gangster or a thug. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine any president comparing the Russian leader to Hitler [as] Hillary Clinton did at a private fund-raiser. … Kennedy, who always worried that miscalculation could lead to war, paid close attention to the language of diplomacy.”

Hillary Is Running Against the Bill of 1992
9 hours ago

The New Covenant. The Third Way. The Democratic Leadership Council style. Call it what you will, but whatever centrist triangulation Bill Clinton embraced in 1992, Hillary Clinton wants no part of it in 2016. Writing for Bloomberg, Sasha Issenberg and Margaret Talev explore how Hillary’s campaign has “diverged pointedly” from what made Bill so successful: “For Hillary to survive, Clintonism had to die.” Bill’s positions in 1992—from capital punishment to free trade—“represented a carefully calibrated diversion from the liberal orthodoxy of the previous decade.” But in New Hampshire, Hillary “worked to juggle nostalgia for past Clinton primary campaigns in the state with the fact that the Bill of 1992 or the Hillary of 2008 would likely be a marginal figure within today’s Democratic politics.”

Trevor Noah Needs to Find His Voice. And Fast.
10 hours ago

At first, “it was pleasant” to see Trevor Noah “smiling away and deeply dimpling in the Stewart seat, the seat that had lately grown gray hairs,” writes The Atlantic‘s James Parker in assessing the new host of the once-indispensable Daily Show. But where Jon Stewart was a heavyweight, Noah is “a very able lightweight, [who] needs time too. But he won’t get any. As a culture, we’re not about to nurture this talent, to give it room to grow. Our patience was exhausted long ago, by some other guy. We’re going to pass judgment and move on. There’s a reason Simon Cowell is so rich. Impress us today or get thee hence. So it comes to this: It’s now or never, Trevor.”