Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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