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 »
STAFF PICKS
When It Comes to Mining Asteroids, Technology Is Only the First Problem
23 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Obama Reflects on His Economic Record
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Reagan Families, Allies Lash Out at Will Ferrell
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."

Source:
PEAK CONFIDENCE
Clinton No Longer Running Primary Ads
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-ex­pec­ted primary battle be­hind her, former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton (D) is no longer go­ing on the air in up­com­ing primary states. “Team Clin­ton hasn’t spent a single cent in … Cali­for­nia, In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ore­gon and West Vir­gin­ia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “cam­paign has spent a little more than $1 mil­lion in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone back­er in the Sen­ate, said the can­did­ate should end his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign if he’s los­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton after the primary sea­son con­cludes in June, break­ing sharply with the can­did­ate who is vow­ing to take his in­sur­gent bid to the party con­ven­tion in Phil­adelphia.”

Source:
CITIZENS UNITED PT. 2?
Movie Based on ‘Clinton Cash’ to Debut at Cannes
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

The team behind the bestselling "Clinton Cash"—author Peter Schweizer and Breitbart's Stephen Bannon—is turning the book into a movie that will have its U.S. premiere just before the Democratic National Convention this summer. The film will get its global debut "next month in Cannes, France, during the Cannes Film Festival. (The movie is not a part of the festival, but will be shown at a screening arranged for distributors)." Bloomberg has a trailer up, pointing out that it's "less Ken Burns than Jerry Bruckheimer, featuring blood-drenched money, radical madrassas, and ominous footage of the Clintons."

Source:
×