I enjoy politics as a spectator sport, just like any other almost-34-year-old who periodically reads long-form articles in publications trying to recapture their mojo. I’ll look at results today for Michaud-LePage (Maine Governor), Elise Stefanik and her 30 year-old self getting after U.S. Congress, and Mia Love. But the thing is, broadly speaking … midterm elections are meaningless.
Take a look at this chart from Wikipedia:
That goes from 1910 to 2014 — a decent swath of U.S. history in which two World Wars happened, as well as Vietnam, the assassination of JFK, and a whole bunch of other stuff. (Oh, most of the U.S. infrastructure was built during the same time.)
In that span, only three times — just three — did a sitting President’s party gain House seats in a midterm:
- 2002: You can potentially chock this up to American fervor with 9/11 being less than a year before.
- 1998: This should have been a better play for the Republicans, because Clinton was coming off the Lewinsky scandal. Instead, they flopped and Newt Gingrich eventually had to walk out the door.
- 1934: This is a long time ago, obviously, but the essential thing that happened here was a positive referendum on the New Deal (people wanted to see it through).
3 times out of 26 possible midterm elections — 11.5 percent — has the President’s party gained any House seats.
Now let’s look at Senate. The picture is a bit different here, because (especially in the modern age) it takes more money to run/win Senate races.
Still, in the Senate, it’s only been 5 times in 26 midterms since 1910 that the sitting Presidential party has gained in the upper chamber. 2002 is on this list too — America! America! — but 1970, which makes the Senate R+1 list, was the last time a third-party candidate won a Senate election (that skews things when you’re talking +1).
The highest midterm turnout since 1948 was 1966, when close to 1/2 of all people voted. Meanwhile, the lowest Presidential year turnout was 1948 itself, when a little over 1/2 of all people voted.
The last three Presidential elections have averaged a bit over 60 percent of the U.S. eligible voting population, while the last three midterms have averaged about 41 percent — 20 percent lower.
Because of 24/7 cable news, there will always be breathless analysis of midterm races and what they mean. No doubt. But here’s what they really mean: about 1/5th less people actually show up to vote, and there’s almost no chance (1 in 10, maybe) that the sitting President’s party will do anything. And, lest ye forget, Presidential elections are about the Electoral College, which is a whole different ballgame anyway.
Analyze tonight all you want, but … it’s essentially fairly easy to predict and ultimately meaningless. If the Democrats get train-tracked tonight, does that mean Hilary or Candidate X has no shot? Not at all.