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

September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Moly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.



September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.


Follow us


How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

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