Most analysts have overlooked a remarkable fact about recent midterm elections. The last four — 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006 — have all been strikingly atypical.
In 1998, the electorate was punishing Republicans for their handling of the Clinton impeachment process and rewarding Democrats for a rapidly growing economy. In 2002, voters expressed approval of George W. Bush’s initial response to the foreign policy crisis provoked by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Election results of this kind are exceedingly rare.
The 1994 election, in which Newt Gingrich helped Republicans capture both chambers of Congress, was one of the most spectacular instances of party reversal in American history. The 2006 election, when the Democrats replaced the Republicans in both houses, was not far behind. In 1994, the campaign turned on the Republicans’ policy platform — the Contract With America — and their rejection of President Clinton’s health care program. The big theme of 2006 was the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war.
From all indications, 2010 is shaping up to be at least as extraordinary as the last four midterm contests, if not more so. At stake is Barack Obama’s dream of being the transformative president who would consign conservatism and the memory of Ronald Reagan to the dustbin of history and inaugurate an age of revived and renewed liberalism.
To overturn the current Democratic majorities, Republicans need to flip 40 seats in the House and 10 in the Senate — gains that, given the advantages incumbents enjoy, are difficult to achieve in modern politics. Leading electoral analysts nevertheless give Republicans a good chance, better for the House than for the Senate.
Democratic leaders, for obvious reasons, publicly dismiss prognostications of defeat. Vice President Joe Biden recently guaranteed the party faithful victory, adding, “Were it not illegal, I’d make book on it.” But beneath his bluster, the vice president was already defining victory down, such that it would encompass any result short of the Democrats’ relinquishing control of both House and Senate.
No one today is even talking about the possibility of the Democrats’ gaining seats — a fact that represents by far the most important story of this election season. Just two years ago, following the 2008 election, the cover of Time magazine featured Obama’s head superimposed on FDR riding in his convertible. For Time and so many others, Obama was to be the new Roosevelt, inaugurating an enduring Democratic majority. Today, Democrats will be thrilled if they fare no worse under Obama than they did under Jimmy Carter in the midterms of 1978.
How unusual 2010 will be turns on whether Democrats lose control of one or both chambers of Congress. There have been only six instances where the party holding all three national electoral institutions going into a midterm election lost both the House and Senate, and eight where it lost one chamber. Facing high unemployment, an anemic recovery, and a precipitous loss in the nation’s confidence, Obama and the Democrats stand on the precipice of just such a rejection.
Daniel DiSalvo is an assistant professor of political science at the City College of New York-CUNY. James W. Ceaser is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of politics at the University of Virginia. This article appeared in The Weekly Standard.