OnlySky Quick Take
Snapshots of major issues
Pundits and political commentators have been lighting up the internet with talk about how Democrats are likely to struggle in the 2022 midterm elections. History backs up the claim that Democrats won’t do all that well in the midterm elections. Since 1946, the President’s party has averaged a loss of 25 seats in the House during midterm elections.
What is interesting about these losses is that they vary across time and different political environments. Presidents have faced these losses during times of war, times of peace, of economic expansion and economic contraction. So midterm losses for the President’s party are most likely due to structural forces, and not any one poor policy decision or bad political appointment.
But pundits and politicians alike often attribute these losses to political decision-making. After Democrats lost the Virginia Governor’s race, President Biden talked about how upset Americans had become. “People are upset and uncertain about a lot of things,” he said, “from COVID to school to jobs to a whole range of things and the cost of a gallon of gasoline. And so if I’m able to pass and sign into law my Build Back Better initiative, I’m in a position where you’re going to see a lot of things ameliorated, quickly and swiftly.” But history indicates that parties in power face midterm losses even after passing a signature piece of legislation. After all, it was roughly a decade ago when former President Obama passed the Affordable Care Act and then saw Democrats lose the House.
It is entirely reasonable to expect that Republicans will win the House next year, and possibly the Senate as well. The party out of power tends to be more enthusiastic to turn out during off-year and midterm elections than the President’s party. However, that doesn’t mean that Democrats are doomed in a 2024 Presidential election. Midterm elections and Presidential elections are fundamentally different matchups.
In midterm elections, the out party tends to be more energized, and the overall electorate is smaller. The electorate is more likely to be dominated by hardcore partisans who care a lot about politics. Presidential elections are larger and more salient in the national news. Partisans from both sides tend to be equally energized to turnout, and there are more low propensity voters in the electorate.
The difference between midterm and Presidential elections can be seen by examining the past two Democratic administrations. Both Clinton and Obama faced significant losses in the 1994 and 2010 midterms, respectively. But Clinton won the 1996 election with a nearly 9% margin, while Obama won the 2012 election with a roughly 4% margin. If history rhymes, President Biden could struggle through the 2022 midterm elections before winning a 2024 Presidential election by a decent margin. It is a reasonable bet that the pandemic will have quieted down by November of 2024, and that the economy will continue to expand in the meantime. Democrats may have a difficult 2022, but that won’t be predictive of how the Presidential election turns out.