The “First Midterm Curse” is the New “Blue Wall”
Our point is: there is nothing promised by historical trends. We have to earn a win in 2018, and if there is going to be a wave, we have to build the wave drop by drop. The evidence for any “New President’s First Midterm Curse” is not at all stronger than the evidence for a Democrat’s Every Midterm Curse. So Democrats can do well in 2018 if we are able to persuade and turn out those voters that supported President Obama in 2012 but stayed home (or voted Republican) in 2010, 2014, and 2016 but this would be more about prevailing against historical headwinds than benefiting from historical tailwinds.
Perhaps you have heard that newly elected presidents usually lose a lot of seats in the House of Representatives in the first midterm election after they win the White House. This belief is giving Democrats hope that history is on their side as they seek to win back control of the House (even though many worry that the Democrats’ prospects for gains in the Senate are far less rosy.) But is the “First Midterm Curse” really something the Democrats can count on or will it prove to be as falsely predictive as the “Blue Wall” states that voted for Democrats six presidential elections in a row, but surprised many experts by swinging to Trump in 2016?
The Democrats may or may not win enough seats to take the House in 2018, (we will know on November 7th 2018) but the First Midterm Curse does not provide much assurance. Proponents of the theory should be asked this question: if the historical trend is so strong, how many times have the Democrats benefitted from it? Since the Truman Administration, how many times have Democrats won 20 or more seats in the first midterm for a new Republican president?
The answer is…one time. In Ronald Reagan’s first midterm in 1982, the GOP lost 26 seats. The chamber was already in the Democrats hands so control did not flip, so since World War II, Democrats have never won 20 seats to flip control of the House in a Republican president’s first midterm. Democrats did flip the House by winning 19 seats in Eisenhauer's first midterm in 1954. And they retook the House by winning 31 seats in 2006 but this was in George W Bush’s second term. Only Democrats with the patience to wait for a surge in 2022 can gain solace from the record of the George W. Bush presidency.
Of the eleven times new presidents have faced voters in their first midterms since the end of World War II, they have lost 20 or more seats just four times. Reagan is joined by Truman who lost 28 seats in 1950, Clinton who lost 54 seats in 1994, and Obama who lost 63 seats in his first midterm in 2010.
These massive first midterm losses for the two most recent Democratic presidents contribute greatly to Democrats’ faith that first midterms are dangerous for new presidents, but there is another more likely trend at work. This is the tendency for Democrats to do poorly in midterm elections regardless of who is in the White House.
This was a popular explanation for Democratic losses in 2010 and 2014 when the Democrats lost an additional 13 seats in Obama’s second midterm. Few Democrats attributed the losses of 76 seats in two successive midterm election to any rejection of President Obama or his policies. Instead we were told the losses reflected gerrymandered districts (which will be little changed in 2018) and the tendency of key Democratic constituencies such as young voters and racial minorities to vote only in Presidential years. Democrats could increase turnout of these voters due to anger at losing an election unexpectedly to Donald Trump, but this would entail reversing, rather than relying on, historical trends.
The problem with all of this type of analysis is the limited number of data points. It is nearly impossible to separate the electoral consequences of presidents facing their first midterms, from the consequences of Democrats facing any midterms, when the losses of 63 seats in 2010 and 54 seats in 1994 are evidence supporting both theories.
The best way to view elections is to see each one as an independent test of political and organizational strength, uncorrelated with the fairly small number of past elections in the preceding hundred years. With each election cycle, political scientists and pundits give us a new set of historically based theories to predict the next election, and frequently they prove wrong. Barack Obama was elected despite his lack of experience and re-elected despite the high unemployment rate. Both were seen as violating historical trends. The enduring truth is, elections make history, they do not follow historical trends.
There is evidence from social media, news site readership, and cable television ratings that Democrats are more focused on politics this year than most nonelection years. Polling, street rallies and congressional town hall meeting activism also confirm the possibility that this election will be different. If Democrats can maintain this level of involvement and translate it into votes in November 2018, they have a chance to make the next election more like 2006 than 2010 or 2014. But this would be more of a case of bucking historical trends than following them.
Note: This analysis excludes Gerald Ford’s first midterm in 1974 which came just three months after he assumed the office from Richard Nixon who resigned after the Watergate scandal. Republicans lost 74 seats but this would be far more accurately described as a rejection of Nixon in his second term than a rejection of Ford three months into his first term. If you need the post-Watergate election to make the case for a historical precedent, then you do not have much to go on. We will stipulate that if Donald Trump resigns his office between now and November 2018, then it is likely the Democrats will do very well -- based on this one historical example.
This post was edited to correct an error. In Eisenhauer's first midterm in 1954 Republicans lost a narrow majority in the House when Democrats won 19 seats which was far more than they needed but fewer than the Democrats need in 2018.