With the midterms approaching, it is finally time for the American people to voice their opinion of the Biden presidency, or so we are being told. This is a common story. Every four years with mid-term elections we are bombarded with how this one election is the touchstone of America’s approval of the president. I have two statements about the midterm elections. First, I predict the Democrats will probably lose seats. Secondly, if they do, that does not mean doom for Democrats in 2024. How do I know this? Because I study history.
To understand my statements, we have to go back, and Franklin Roosevelt seems as good a place as any to start. 1932 was a historical election. Up to that point, Republicans had dominated the White House since Lincoln, but 1932 ushered in Roosevelt and a Democratic dominance to 1968. The year was also in the heart of the Great Depression and quickly FDR became beloved for his New Deal policies to relieve the nation’s suffering. It should be no surprise that in the 1934 midterm elections the Democrats picked up nine seats in the House and nine in the Senate. FDR then cruised to an easy win in the 1936 presidential election, 523-8 in the Electoral College.
What may be more surprising is that was the last midterm election win for the Democrats for some time, even though FDR retained his popularity and won two more presidential elections. In the 1938 midterm elections, the Democrats lost 72 seats in the House and seven in the Senate, yet FDR won the 1940 election 449 to 82. In the 1942 midterm elections, the Democrats lost 45 seats in the House and eight in the Senate, with FDR still winning the 1944 presidential election 432 to 99.
For the rest of the story, because of size restraints, we will only look at midterm elections before a successful presidential reelection. The next full two-term president was Eisenhower. During his first midterms, his party lost two seats in the Senate and 18 in the House, yet he won reelection in 1956, 457 to 73. Both Kennedy and Johnson were basically one-term presidents. Nixon became president in 1968 and, for his first midterm election, his party did pick up two Senate seats but lost 12 in the House, yet he destroyed his competition 520-17 in in his reelection bid in 1972.
Ford and Carter were both one-term presidents, with the next two-termer being Ronald Reagan. Reagan was extremely popular in the 1980s, but during his first midterm election, he lost 27 seats in the House but picked up one in the Senate. Yet even with the House losses, he crushed his opponent in the 1984 presidential election, 525 to 13. George H.W. Bush was a one-termer, followed by the very popular two-term President Bill Clinton. No matter how popular he was, in his first midterm election his party lost a staggering 54 seats in the House and eight in the Senate. Even with this blow, he still won his reelection in 1996, 379-159.
George W. Bush was the exception to all of his fellow two-term presidents. In his first midterm election, he picked up two seats in the Senate and eight in the House. He went on to win reelection in 2004, 286 to 251. The last two-termer was Obama. In his first midterms, he lost six seats in both the Senate and the House, yet his party’s defeat did not stop him from winning in 2012, 332 to 206.
What we learn from history is that the party controlling the White House loses seats in the midterm. If this election follows suit, Democrats can expect the same. Secondly, every president who won reelection since 1936 has lost party seats in their midterm, except for W. Does this mean that if Democrats lose seats this November that Biden will win reelection? Of course not. Yet it also means that midterm elections hold no bearing on presidential reelections. National issues are important in midterms and Biden will have some influence on these elections, but it also means that local and state issues carry weight.
So consider the issues, examine the candidates, and please vote. It is an important election because all elections are. However, after the elections are over, just turn off your TVs and Internet feeds when you start to hear about what this will mean for the Democrats in two years.
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.