Presidents, Midterms, and Re-Election

The 2018 races are just heating up, and I’ve already seen some ink spilled on the long-term implications of the midterms, with some trying to extrapolate a 2020 from a hypothetical 2018. This is typical political nerdery, and the silliest kind. President Trump’s approval ratings are pretty poor, and midterm elections typically reward the out-of-party power. Combine this with eroding Republican margins in the special elections this year, and you’ll wind up with a dozen think-pieces about how awful 2018 is going to be for the Republican Party.

Much of those write-ups, while a bit premature elections so far away from us, at least makes sense. You’re taking existing polling data, special election results, and the results from 2016, and are attempting to imagine what the House and Senate races will look like if current trends continue all the way until next November. That’s still a reach because we are so far out from next year, but at least it’s based on something.

Taking the next step though, and using your hypothetical 2018 to play out 2020, is completely ludicrous. Even assuming a wipe out of the Republican Party in Congress, such an event won’t assure one outcome or the other in 2020. Chamber losses in midterms rarely correlate with a Party flip in the White House. Before Trump, seventeen Presidents faced electorates which could vote in both House and Senate elections (the first Senate elections under the Seventeenth Amendment occurred in 1914).

Five of them saw their Party lose control of at least one chamber of Congress in their first midterm: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, and Herbert Hoover. Only one of these Presidents, Hoover, would go on to lose re-election. Clinton, Eisenhower and Truman wound up losing both chambers of Congress in their first midterm, but each rebounded and won a second term, two of them rather easily.

While it’s fun to think forward and play what-if, let’s get through one cycle first, and acknowledge it probably won’t foretell the next one very well.