Menus Subscribe Search

What Makes Us Politic

capitol-dc

The Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Photo: mdgn/Shutterstock)

What Matters in Mid-Term Elections?

• June 23, 2014 • 10:00 AM

The Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Photo: mdgn/Shutterstock)

It’s not that the Bowe Bergdahl story isn’t important; it’s just unlikely to influence voters in November. So what will?

We’re just over four months away from the 2014 congressional mid-terms, and news reports are starting to turn to the general elections in speculation of what might tip things toward one party or the other. I thought now might be a good time to talk about what we know generally does, and doesn’t, affect the mid-terms.

Just for starters, here’s a graph showing how the president’s party has performed in U.S. House mid-term elections going back to 1950. As is clear, it’s pretty common for the president’s party to lose seats; this happened in every election except 1998 and 2002. Both of those election cycles featured unusually popular incumbents. (Clinton oddly benefited from the impeachment coverage, and Bush was experiencing high approval ratings in the wake of 9/11.)

midterm results

While losses are the norm, they’re clearly not consistent, ranging from Democrats’ modest four-seat loss under Kennedy in 1962 to their record 63-seat loss in 2010 under Obama. What explains this variation?

One big influence is the economy. National economic growth (although not overall unemployment levels) seems to determine how the president’s party will do. As the graph below shows, when the economy is stronger, the president’s party does better, or at least less horribly. The biggest wipeouts for the president’s party occur when the economy is weaker. Democrats gained seats under Clinton in 1998 in large part because the economy was booming.

income and vote 2010

The popularity of the president also seems to be important. Even though Obama’s name will appear on no ballots this fall, he’s there at the back of voters’ minds. They’re thinking about him when they decide how the Democrat in their district is doing. Obama’s approval rating is hovering around 45 percent right now and pretty likely to stay there through the fall—he has one of the most stable approval ratings of any president in history. The chart below shows the interaction of presidential approval and economic growth on the performance of the president’s party in House elections. As can be seen, Obama could save his party quite a few seats by somehow adding 20 points to his approval rating, but again, that’s pretty unlikely to happen.

midterm ideals

Another key variable is the exposure of the president’s party. That is, when they control a lot of seats, they’re more vulnerable. In 2010, Democrats held 257 House seats. These included many moderate to conservative districts that Democrats normally don’t control but had managed to win thanks to favorable electoral environments in 2006 and 2008. That left the Democrats very exposed when the wind turned against them. This year, they only control 201 seats in the House, and those districts tend to be pretty reliably liberal. So they’re not likely to lose many seats. (It’s the Senate’s six-year terms, though, that make Democrats particularly vulnerable in that chamber. The Democrats up for re-election this year won in 2008, a very Democratic year. They now have to defend moderate to conservative turf in a pro-Republican environment.)

To some extent, the voting behavior of incumbent members of Congress matters. Members who seem to vote with their party too often can sometimes appear to be out of step with their district, and voters may punish them for that. Sometimes, this comes down to a single roll call vote. Democrats who voted for the Affordable Care Act in 2010 actually did about six points worse at the polls than Democrats who opposed it. This is a large part of the reason that Democrats performed so historically badly in that election cycle. There probably isn’t a single toxic vote like that in this year’s cycle, and support for/opposition to Obamacare is already baked into people’s evaluations of the parties.

Finally, primaries can matter, as they affect the quality of the candidates that appear in the general election. The Cantor-Brat primary in Virginia was a big deal in part because it replaced a seasoned pol with a novice as the Republican nominee. It’s a safe Republican district, so that probably won’t affect the November outcome a great deal, but this can make a big difference in more competitive districts. The Republicans may have lost out on several relatively easy Senate pickups in 2010 because Tea Party insurgents defeated more electable candidates in the primaries.

That’s most of what we find matters in mid-term elections. Now, a Google search lists many other possible influences on this year’s election, such as Bowe Bergdahl’s release from the Taliban, Obamacare enrollment figures, foreign policy crises in such places as Ukraine and Iraq, campaign fundraising, unemployment figures, and so forth. Will these things affect the elections? Probably not, or at least not directly, and not in the aggregate. (They could affect Obama’s approval ratings, for example, which could then influence the elections, but it’s pretty tenuous.) It’s not that these other stories aren’t important, it’s just that they won’t actually drive many people’s votes.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


July 23 • 11:49 AM

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.


July 23 • 10:00 AM

Outing the Death-Drug Distributors

Calling all hackers: It’s time to go Assange on capital punishment.


July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.



July 23 • 6:00 AM

How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

Why can’t triathletes and weightlifters get along?


July 23 • 5:02 AM

Battle of the Public Intellectuals: Edward Glaeser vs. Richard Florida

On gentrification and housing costs.


July 23 • 4:00 AM

Our Fear of Immigrants

Why did a group of fourth graders rally in support of an undocumented classmate while the citizens of Murrieta, California, tried to stop immigrant children from entering their town?


July 22 • 4:00 PM

Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?

Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Jo Marchant meets a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so.



July 22 • 2:00 PM

The Alabama Judge Who Refuses to Let Desegregation Orders Go Ignored

A federal judge in Alabama says a local school board has failed to meet legal mandate to integrate.


July 22 • 12:00 PM

On the Destinations of Species

It’s almost always easier to cross international borders if you’re something other than human.


July 22 • 10:51 AM

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.


July 22 • 10:47 AM

Irrational Choice Theory: The LeBron James Migration From Miami to Cleveland

Return migrants to Cleveland have been coming home in large numbers for quite some time. It makes perfect sense.


July 22 • 9:32 AM

This Time, Scalia Was Right

President Obama’s recess appointments were wrong and, worse, dangerous.


July 22 • 8:00 AM

On Vegas Strip, Blackjack Rule Change Is Sleight of Hand

Casino operators are changing blackjack payouts to give the house an even greater advantage. Is this a sign that Vegas is on its way back from the recession, or that the Strip’s biggest players are trying to squeeze some more cash out of visitors before the well runs dry?


July 22 • 6:00 AM

Label Me Confused

How the words on a bag of food create more questions than answers.


July 22 • 5:07 AM

Doubly Victimized: The Shocking Prevalence of Violence Against Homeless Women

An especially vulnerable population is surveyed by researchers.


July 22 • 4:00 AM

New Evidence That Blacks Are Aging Faster Than Whites

A large study finds American blacks are, biologically, three years older than their white chronological counterparts.



July 21 • 4:00 PM

Do You Have to Learn How to Get High?

All drugs are socially constructed.


July 21 • 2:14 PM

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.


July 21 • 2:00 PM

Why Are Obstetricians Among the Top Billers for Group Psychotherapy in Illinois?

Illinois leads the country in group psychotherapy sessions in Medicare, and some top billers aren’t mental health specialists. The state’s Medicaid program has cracked down, but federal officials have not.



Follow us


Subscribe Now

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.