There’s something that President Biden has in common with the last two former Presidents: He is projected to have a difficult midterm election and lose the House and potentially the Senate.
President Obama famously had a difficult 2010 midterm election, where Republicans gained 60 seats. President Trump also saw his party lose the House during the 2018 midterm elections, even as the economy continued to improve.
So what’s behind the midterm backlash? These are three very different Presidents governing in very different circumstances. Obama passed the Affordable Care Act and worked on moving the country past the Great Recession. Trump signed tax cuts for the wealthy and governed crassly from social media. Biden is set to have his own legislative agenda, massive government stimulus and an expansion of the social safety net, in place well before the midterms roll around.
Despite differences in style and substance, there are structural factors that tie them together and make midterm backlash fairly predictable.
Only twice has the Presidents’ party gained seats in the House and the Senate in midterm elections—in 1934 and 2002. Both governed in extraordinary circumstances and became unusually popular as a result. Roosevelt started the practice of large-scale government intervention into the economy during the Depression, while Bush experienced a rally ’round the flag effect after the 9/11 terror attacks.
Most Presidents will not govern during such extraordinary times or be rewarded with high approval ratings prior to the midterm elections. In most cases, voters blame the President and their party when things go wrong, and the President’s base tends to get complacent in a lower turnout election.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the structural reasons behind the midterm meltdown.
Voters blame the President when things go wrong
Voters only have so much time. They aren’t going to parse through every complex political issue. But they do know who the President is. And when things go wrong, that is who will get the blame.
Of course, things go wrong during every Presidency. Gallup has found that virtually all Presidents in the modern era have their approval rating fall under 50%. There are so many moving parts in the American economy and political system that something is bound to go wrong. And that’s not even considering the foreign policy arena and the many international relationships that the US President has to juggle. When something goes off the rails–whether it pertains to jobs, infrastructure, or even an international incident—you can expect voters to blame the President.
It doesn’t matter much if the President is actually responsible for what went wrong. Research which suggests that the President has limited power over the economy. That doesn’t stop voters from voting with their pocketbooks. In fact, the economy remains one of the most predictive factors in major elections. If something isn’t working right, voters know that the most salient political actor is the President, and they expect the President to make things work for them and to improve their lives.
There are some who argue that this indicates that voters aren’t being rational. After all, in most cases, these issues are incredibly complex and the President often isn’t at fault. Voters also may sour on a President for passing legislation that they end up liking later (Obama’s Affordable Care Act is a prime example). But voters are doing the best that they can with limited time and limited information. Voters may be fickle, and they may change their minds from election to election about what they want in a leader. These are difficulties faced across democracies; political leaders have to manage expectations of the electorates they are going to face.
The President’s party tends to get apathetic or frustrated
It is one thing to say how you are going to govern as a candidate, it is quite another thing to actually govern as an elected official. When you are a candidate, you don’t face any issues with Congress, you don’t have to worry about the judicial branch striking down portions of your legislative agenda. You don’t have to consider any of the structural issues with governing or the impediments that make change difficult. But elected officials, the President in particular, quickly find out that governing isn’t easy. And when you can’t deliver all of your campaign promises, your party base tends to get a bit restless.
The President often goes through contentious negotiations with Congress in an attempt to pass legislation. These are often difficult intraparty negotiations. The contentious nature of these negotiations can turn off the base. The negotiations often lead to legislation that isn’t exactly what was promised on the stump.
This can further dampen enthusiasm to turnout in midterm elections. But complacency is just as important of a factor as apathy and frustration. Voters who like the President and approve of what they’ve done may not feel a need to turn out to vote in the midterm elections. They may feel secure politically or economically, and this could keep them at home even when the party is asking them to come out to vote.
This is in contrast to the opposition party, who tends to be quite energized and ready to turnout during midterm elections. The out-party’s voters tend to be angry and motivated. They can assign blame to the President for things that have gone wrong without their own party taking any of the heat, since they don’t hold the White House. This makes midterm elections a sort of asymmetric battle.
Midterm electorates are different than Presidential electorates
It is also important to remember that midterm elections are significantly different from Presidential elections. The composition of the electorates are not the same. Presidential elections have significantly higher turnout than midterm elections. That’s because Presidential elections are more salient and for better or for worse, most voters deem those elections as more important.
How does low turnout impact midterm elections? It generally means that the party with the more engaged voters has a disproportionate advantage. This is in comparison to Presidential elections when both parties have engaged voters. Since the out-party generally has a more angry, motivated base during midterms, they tend to win more often than not. The President’s base tends to be dealing with complacency issues, or frustration after failing to achieve the President’s full agenda.
What does this mean for Democrats in 2022?
So what does this mean for Democrats in 2022? Are they electorally doomed?
The historical trends are not good. They would suggest that regardless of Biden’s legislative record, the Democratic Party will face a difficult midterm election. Most analysts expect Democrats to lose the House, with the Senate being more of a tossup.
It is possible that Democrats hold on to the House, but it is considered highly unlikely. A possible winning scenario for Democrats might be Trump’s continued salience in elections. His presence could energize Democratic voters who may have not turned out otherwise. Democratic voters have an intense disdain for Trump, and the Republican Party may prove unable to prevent him from taking center stage during the election.
How does the midterm backlash impact Presidents?
The backlash that Presidents tend to face in the midterms has a dramatic impact on the rest of their term. Oftentimes, Presidents move from full control of Congress to split control. In the modern, highly polarized era, this generally means that the President cannot expect to continue their legislative agenda past the midterm elections.
That makes the President’s first two years their most important from the standpoint of legislation and legacy. Obama is remembered for the Affordable Care Act, which was his chief accomplishment in office. Biden will likely also be mostly remembered for the legislation that Democrats can pass before the midterm elections. After the midterms ended, both Obama and Trump were hamstrung legislatively. Their agenda was effectively over, and they spent more time thinking about foreign policy and the courts than working with Congress to pass major legislation.
A poor midterm showing doesn’t mean that the President’s electoral future is grim. Midterm and Presidential elections have vastly different electorates. Obama faced a difficult midterm election and won the next Presidential election handily. The Democrats could face a 2022 midterm backlash but still be in position to win the 2024 Presidential election as the electorate expands and voter turnout increases. President Biden should expect a difficult midterm election, but history does not rule out a win in the next general.