There are two things everyone thinks they know about midterm elections: 1, the president's party always loses and 2, a president's second midterm is worse than the first. I suppose the phrasing gives away that I'm about to cast doubt on those ideas. OK, the first actually is true, in that the president's party has lost seats in the US House every midterm since the Civil War except for 1934, 1998, and 2002. Spoiler alert: I'm going to give away why those three years stand out, so if you want to figure it out yourself first, don't scroll down too far. First however, I'm going to give the good news. Namely, number 2 is wrong. That's good news because 2010 was a lousy midterm, and we don't want to learn from experience what worse looks like.
How can such conventional wisdom be wrong? I wonder how it became conventional wisdom to begin with. Yes, Bush Jr.'s second midterm was bad, and the second time was bad for FDR. However, Reagan and Clinton had lousy first midterms, and Eisenhower lost Congress in his. I suppose we could argue whether 1974 was Ford's one midterm or the second midterm of Nixon/Ford, but if we're having to stretch that far to find examples, we're really not finding a trend. First midterms seem as likely to be awful, from the president's party's point of view, as the second.
There does seem to be a trend of each two-term president getting one awful midterm --- but just one. Obama had his already. That hints at hope for a happy answer to the question in the title, that yes, maybe Democrats can win next year.
Before getting too happy though, dose of reality time, the president's party has lost seats every time except the aforementioned three exceptions. It's not always a big loss, but history makes clear the voters prefer the non-presidential party. Are the big losses a function of just how unhappy the midterm voters are, or how much more motivation there is among the president's opponents? Maybe a serious shellacking requires the president's party to hold pretty much everything going in. I would guess the latter actually, since it makes sense that you can't lose what you don't hold, so I'm not fearful of large losses next year. Small losses, yes, those worry me, some House seats and maybe a legislative chamber or two, plus just a few lost seats would flip the US senate. That is in fact what I would predict based on history, which party holds what, and how many more Senate seats Democrats have to defend next year (21-14 counting two special elections). Hang on though. What about those three exceptions?
Figured out yet what 1934, 1998, and 2002 have in common? They were unusual if not unique years, and I'm suggesting that the midterm trend can be avoided in an weird year. 1934 came during the Great Depression, when the economy was still awful, but so unusually awful, that Roosevelt got credit for the unusual steps he took to improve it. Unlike 2010 voters, 1934 voters remembered that the president inherited a disaster from the Republicans. 1998 was the year of impeachment. It was also year of the delicious irony that Republicans seriously talked about winning veto-proof majorities, I guess believing the "second midterm" myth. That's not why they lost, but it is fun to remind them of how delusional they could be back then, whereas now ... oh right. Anyway, 2002 was the sales campaign for the invasion of Iraq, when the vote on authorizing the invasion had to happen right freaking now --- and conveniently a couple weeks before the election. Nice trap for anti-war Democrats. How dare you examine the evidence against an unrelated country when we were attacked last year! The trap worked, and the Republicans gained seats.
Of course, with 1998 and 2002 being consecutive, maybe they merely clustered, but maybe the "midterms suck for the president's party" rule no longer applies. I'm using the unusual circumstances theory nonetheless. I promise to reconsider after a few more midterms, if the rule seems to no longer be rule, but we're going with the unusual year for now, and it's where I see some hope. 2014 looks like an unusual year.
Of course, we're still a year away, and this is being written during the manufactured crises of the simultaneous shutdown of the federal government with the debt ceiling about to force a default if it isn't raised. A year is a long time and possibly none of this will apply next year. We do however have polls showing the Republicans are self-inflicting damage beyond Democratic hopes. The Republicans are taking much more of the blame for actions which turned out to be unpopular (too bad no one tried to warn the Republicans, aside from everyone not lost in a tea party haze), and Sam Wang analyzed the most recent polls and determined that if the election were held now, Democrats would flip about 30 House seats.
30 seats may not sound like a lot, but to put it in perspective, 17 would give the Democrats the House. In the three elections where the president's party won, in utter defiance of the midterm rule, they won seats in the single digits. When you expect to lose a bunch, you're quite happy with a tiny gain. So that indicates the size of the potential wave, but also the low likelihood of pulling off such a win in an election coming a year after the crisis. If the crisis or something like it goes on until close enough to election day however, then maybe we are talking about the fourth weird midterm, even if a blue wave seems like asking an awful lot.
Then again, President Obama has made it a goal to take back the House, and it's understandable the first black president would be unimpressed by "it's never been done before".
The Post reportsthat almost immediately after his re-election, Obama began working behind the scenes to win back the lower chamber and attempt to secure his legacy. The plan, the paper suggests, is to nationalize the 2014 race around issues which have popular public appeal — gun control, immigration reform, the minimum wage, climate change and others — but little chance of moving through the House.
Maybe the president still has his numbers crunchers from last year, and they see something in the data that tells them there's an opportunity. Maybe he has some new strategy, and certainly nationalizing the race is the opposite of the Democrats' 2010 strategy of localizing elections, which both parties do when they're on the wrong side of a wave, even though that strategy never works. Of course, there may not be any hopeful numbers or new strategy, but just the dire necessity of flipping the House no matter how lousy the odds. I'm running with that one, at least until the numbers look hopeful closer to the election. The numbers are arguable, predictions are arguable, but dire necessity is certain, and is enough to say we have to try. Fortunately, the president's campaign staff in 2008 and 2012 ran the two best campaigns probably ever. 2010 sucked, and the administration has generally been poor at messaging. So it's a mixed record. If the people working on flipping the House are the same people who worked on the presidential campaign, then we have the best people on it. Our odds, even if poor, are being maximized, and maximizing your odds is what it's all about.
The polls aren't the only sign that we can win however. The gubernatorial race in Virginia is close, with a slight lead for the Democrat. Virginia elects its governor the year after the presidential election, and it always elects a governor from the non-presidential party, so the Republican should be guaranteed a win. That history was cited to blow-off the blow-out win by the Republican in 2009, yet it turned out it was part of the wave of 2010. So if the Democratic candidate defies history, though still a year before the 2014 election, it's a sign to us that we should be on the offensive.
Though we can't predict a year ahead of time, we can make some reasonable guesses, such as the self-destructive impulses of the modern Republican Party will continue to govern them. They might learn from this shutdown/debt ceiling disaster, but there's nothing in their recent history to suggest they will. It's more likely Republicans will decide they just weren't conservative enough, like every other time they've lost. Like someone whose name I don't know once said in mockery, "Conservatism can never fail, but can only be failed." It's tough to believe they'll do anything as strategically destructive as what they're doing now, but it's enough if they just to fix their mistake.
Of course, even if we can win the House, at what cost? We need to win at least one House to give the president any leverage, and if the Republicans pick up five seats in the Senate, they flip. With the Democrats defending 21 seats to 14, five seems quite doable. It's really not a large number, and taking those seems quite in line with a normal midterm. Without the GOP implosion, it's a small enough number that I would guess the GOP would take the Senate. Will going for the House distract us from holding the Senate? What about the lesson we've learned (I hope) about the destructive policies that can be imposed at a state level. Winning governorships and state legislatures is arguable as important as winning the US House. That assumes going after one means conceding the other, which isn't a safe assumption at this point, but is a choice we might have to make and need to think through.
So, back to the original question, can we win? It's possible enough that we should try to win Republican seats rather than just defending Democrats in hopes of reducing losses. What we have in our favor is:
*The polls tell us it's not just our hope or impression, but the Republicans have inflicted a shocking degree of damage on themselves;
*The Republicans show no signs if learning to control their self-destructive impulses, even if they don't do anything this stupid again before election day 2014;
*President Obama seems to have learned from the midterm debacle of 2010 and the debt ceiling debacle of 2011 that he can't reason with Republicans, and he can't stay outside the midterm campaign;
*If they're the same people who worked on his presidential campaigns, then the president has the best people working on 2014;
*The Republicans have done nothing to reach out to the Democratic-leaning demographic groups (DLDGs) groups they've been alienating, which I suppose could be filed under their self-destructive impulses, but which means we still have the DLDGs if only we can solve the problem of drop-off voters;
*Presumably the Republicans are trying to catch up in data and ground game, but even as fast as electoral politics moves, accomplishing this so quickly is unlikely, especially if Democrats haven't sat on their analytic laurels;
*Suppression of DLDG voting is hardly intended to help Democrats, but we've gotten better at fighting it, and there's the theory that the blowback actually increased DLDG turnout in 2012, so maybe it will again;
Above all, bucking history is fun! Or at least it feels good if you can do it, so be glad of things that have never been done before.
Cross-posted at MN Progressive Project