Political observers all know the party holding the White House tends to fare poorly during the midterm elections. That is why the combination of redistricting and the midterm dynamic clearly benefits House Republicans next year.
But reapportionment and redistricting don’t affect the Senate, and more importantly, a recently developing electoral dynamic — the surge in straight-ticket voting — might improve Democrats’ chances of holding the Senate in 2022.
The midterm dynamic
While the sitting president is not on the midterm ballot, voters often see these elections as opportunities to send a message about his first two years.
Those who are angry at the incumbent president and unhappy with his performance tend to turn out in big numbers to express their frustration and disapproval. Often, some who voted for him but are disappointed that he didn’t deliver on his promises stay home during the midterms, creating an electorate that is less favorable than the one that elected him just two years earlier.
Unlike the more visible, better-funded races for the Senate or governor, House members traditionally have found it more difficult to carve out their own identities and run independently of the president.
That is why it is so important to House members of the president’s party that he have strong approval ratings going into midterm elections. The president’s party has gained House seats in midterms only three times in the last 100 years: 1934, 1998 and 2002. All three qualify as “special circumstances” — during the Great Depression, during the Clinton impeachment controversy, and shortly after the 9/11 attacks.
There have been years when House losses by the president’s party were in the low or middle single digits — in 1962 and 1986, for example — but midterm elections have often produced dramatic losses for the president’s party, including in 1974, 1994, 2006, 2010 and 2018.
Large Senate swings have also occurred during midterms, including in 2014, when the GOP gained nine seats; in 2010 and 2006, when the party in the White House lost a half-dozen seats; and in 1986, when Republicans lost eight Senate seats during Ronald Reagan’s second midterm — a bigger defeat than the party suffered in the House that year.
But unlike the House, where every seat is up every two years, only one-third of the Senate is up every two years. That makes the states/seats that are up in a given cycle crucial in creating vulnerabilities for the two parties.