Every four years, the United States of America has a presidential election. More Americans turn out and participate in the presidential elections than the lesser recognized midterm elections. The midterm elections occur in the two-year gaps between the presidential elections. In many ways, these midterms are just as important.
While presidents get four-year terms, all 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives serve only two-year terms. The 100 U.S. Senators serve six-year terms and are staggered, with 33 or 34 being up for election every two years. This means that every midterm election the entire House and a third of the Senate are up for election.
Midterm elections are quite often referendums on the incumbent president, and they are seldom kind. In the last 16 midterm elections since Harry Truman, the incumbent party of the president has lost an average of 24 seats in the House and four in the Senate. In the modern era, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both two-term presidents, had a good and bad midterm. Clinton’s disastrous first midterm in 1994, following his attempt at universal health care, is sometimes referred to as the “Republican Revolution.” Democrats lost 54 House seats and eight Senate seats. Clinton bounced back in 1998, gaining five House seats and not losing any in the Senate. Bush did it the opposite way. He had a great first midterm in 2002, on the heels of 9/11, the War on Terror, and the Iraqi War, picking up eight in the House and two in the Senate. In 2006, Democrats regained the House, picking up 30 seats and gaining six in the Senate.
So what does this history mean to us? On Nov. 2, 2010 we have a midterm election that will be a referendum on President Barack Obama. How will he fare? Current expectations are that Obama’s party will lose seats in both bodies of Congress. Some analysts are predicting that the Democrats may lose as many as 30 to 40 seats in the House. This is significant, because they hold a 75-seat advantage. Losing 38 seats means losing the majority. In the Senate, Democrats look to be losing at least four seats, with another five as toss-ups. If they all got to Republicans, the Senate would be at a 50-50 deadlock. Don’t expect all of those seats to go to Republicans.
Our Founding Fathers structured a system of government that contains checks and balances. While they may not have necessarily designed this two-party system, it does appear to provide accountability. When a president wins an election, he has two years to set his agenda and begin to show progress. He faces the consequences of his actions — and the nation’s mood — at the midterm elections. If the country is happy, he might maintain the same congressional support, with voters keeping his party in power. If the country isn’t happy, they might keep fewer of the president’s party in office, thus moderating what he is trying to accomplish.
Even if Republicans don’t take back either body, slimmer Democratic majorities would seem to mean more difficulty for President Obama. Or will they? My belief is that when a president has a large majority he has little incentive to be diplomatic with the opposite party. When he has fewer of his own party in Congress to work with, he then has to reach across the aisle more often and be more of a statesman.
Midterms can be a humbling experience for a president, but they can also be how Americans moderate our federal government.