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

November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


Follow us


Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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