The Iron Law of Successive Elections

Democrats are certain to lose seats in the House of Representatives.  And like Republicans in 2018, Democrats will lose their House majority. 

Claims to the contrary, are merely partisan cheer-leading.             

In addition, beware of explanations that center on so-called pivotal moments – like the Dobbs ruling, Biden’s legislative successes or campaign events .  They are not critical.  

Regardless of who occupies the White House, losses occur.   

For example, Lyndon Johnson lost 47 Democrat seats in 1966.  Ronald Reagan lost 26 Republican seats in 1982.  In 2010, Barack Obama experienced a 63-seat shellacking.  And in 2018, Trump dropped 40-seats.

The only real question is how many seats will Democrats lose? 

First midterm election by the numbers

Consider the historical pattern displayed below. It is not a law of physics, but it’s very close to one. 

Since WWII, the president’s party has lost House seats in 11 of 12 midterms. Most losses are double digits. The average is twenty-five. Across the last two cycles, that average doubles.       

For the midterm that defied the pattern, gains were small. In 2002, the midterm after 9/11, Republicans celebrated a net gain of eight seats.  The extraordinary 9/11 attacks boosted Bush’s presidential approval ratings to the highest level in recorded history (90%).    

The obvious imbalance between seats won and seats lost signals there is something structural at work.     

Turnout

Presidential elections are high stimulus events. The supercharged environment inspires peripheral voters – those modestly interested in politics. Accordingly, the surge in attention and information increases voter turnout.

By contrast, midterm elections are low stimulus events. Political information and attention decline. Peripheral voters exit. Others, namely Independents and weak identifiers – are disappointed in the new administration. Their enthusiasm drops, and many sit out the elections.

In short, a significant group of peripheral and independent voters lured to the polls by a high stimulus presidential contest withdraw 2 years later.  This explains the disparities in turnout between presidential and congressional elections. There is a notable surge in voting, and then there is a notable decline.

The surge works for the president’s party, then 2 years later the decline works against it

The flood of information and attention during presidential elections is not neutral. The advantaged party receives support from peripheral voters. The advantaged party also draws considerable support from Independents and weak party identifiers. These voters are critical to winning the presidency.   

But two years later, they withdraw.

And among those Independents and weak identifiers that do participate, many swing back in favor of the opposition party.  

For example, in 2016, Donald Trump won the Independent vote over Hillary Clinton 48% to 42%.  Two years later, Independents shifted  strongly toward Democrats 54% to 42%.           

Core voters are important as well. They are strong partisans and possess an enduring interest in politics. They therefore vote regardless of circumstances. Yet, after 2 years of frustration, the out-party’s core is particularly motivated. They are primed for the chance to oust the president’s party.       

Voter turnout in 2018 offers an excellent example. Trump was the focal point for Democrats.  And they effectively mobilized against congressional Republicans. Voter turnout in fact reached historic levels.  Democrats represented 37% of the electorate whereas Republicans 33%.       

Enthusiasm, energy, and organization are always on the side of the out-party. A Republican in the White House strengthens the Democrat base, and a Democrat president motivates the Republican base.      

The structure of successive elections

The surge in presidential election turnout always declines 2 years later. It does not matter who occupies the White House. It does not matter if the economy is good or bad. It does not matter if the president is reasonably popular or unpopular, or what are the salient issues.  None of that is important to the basic outcome. The incumbent party will suffer a net loss in the House.   

While the surge lifts one party to the oval office, the inevitable decline brings about midterm losses. The electorate for successive elections is therefore not the same. Midterm electorate’s favor the out-party.       

Does this mean the president’s party can never win seats during the first midterm? No; 2002 shows how powerful an exogenous shock like war can be to the political system. The parties united after 9/11 – however briefly – rallied around the flag and exhibited historic support for the president.    

But since that time, the system snapped back, and the structural pattern returned.

How many seats will Democrats lose?

A majority in the House requires 218 seats. Democrats now control 220. If they lose more than two seats net, Republicans will assume the majority. Given Joe Biden’s net favorability ratings hover in the range that Trump experienced in 2018, and inflation continues to pull down consumer’s real wages, significant seat losses are inevitable. Democrats would have to outperform the Kennedy administration’s 4 seat loss to keep their majority.    

Formal models and polling both indicate Republicans will win the House.  Eyeballing the estimates, it is reasonable to expect Democrats to lose 20 to 30 seats. 

However, recent structural changes could limit the losses. For example, strong partisan polarization, gerrymandering, and the 15 Republican seat pick up in 2020 limit the number of winnable seats.  In other words, the size of the 2022 battleground is much smaller than normal.     

When the significant losses occur, critics will point the finger at Biden’s legislative missteps, his lack of action on certain issues, high inflation, foreign policy lapses, and an identify politics agenda. Post-election assessments will include all sorts of stories about voters shifting right, embracing the Republican agenda, and disavowing Democrat policies.

These stories will resonate. But Democrats would have experienced losses regardless of Biden’s actions.  Again, for a newly elected president losses are baked into the system. Sure, the particulars about how many seats changed party, where those seats are located, and for what reasons did they change, are in part attributable to the social-political context.

But, once more, the general outcome appears predetermined. Democrats will lose seats.      

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