It’s one of the most enduring rules of thumb in American politics.
Since 1862, the president’s party has lost seats in the House in every midterm election but three (1934, 1998 and 2002). Until very recently, it seemed like the 2022 midterms would provide one more data point to this long-standing trend. And that is still likely. But talk of a “red wave,” never mind a “red tsunami,” has given way to talk of a Republican “ripple,” as handicappers keep downgrading the GOP’s chances for big gains.
For many progressives, the GOP’s deteriorating prospects are directly attributable to a popular backlash against the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs. Wade. Others point to a string of Democratic legislative successes, better than expected job numbers, and a modest turnaround on high gas prices and a slowing of inflation generally.
And, of course, there’s the “Trump factor.” Since the search of his Mar-a-Lago home, the former president has dominated news coverage and has forced Republicans to talk about him and his issues — both in the political and psychological sense — rather than stay on message about the Democrats’ failings.
No doubt, all of that is part of the explanation. But plenty of presidents have had similar first term successes over the last 160 years, and yet still suffered badly in the midterms. The president’s party lost 26 House seats in the average midterm election since World War II. CBS’ election tracker currently predicts a GOP pickup of half that number of seats.
Political scientists bicker about why midterms are good for the out-party. But most of the explanations rely on two closely related factors. The first is that the midterms are a referendum on the party in power. When presidents have high approval numbers, they keep their losses down. The second factor is that the losers of the last election are more energized than the winners, so they turn out more.
Both of these theories are surely being borne out to some extent. Biden’s approval ratings have risen modestly from abysmal to merely not very good. And Democratic voters have become more enthusiastic in the wake of the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe and thanks to the various Trump-related controversies.
But I think there’s another way of explaining what’s happening. One of the great advantages of being the out-party is that you get to say “don’t blame us” and “we didn’t do it” for everything that goes wrong. As the country goes in the wrong direction, you can be a backseat driver insisting you’d do it all differently.
Republicans were in such a sweet spot for more than a year. But it just doesn’t feel like Republicans are out of power anymore. When the Republican-appointee-dominated Supreme Court handed down its abortion decision, Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, there was reason for skepticism that abortion would be a pivotal issue in the midterms. But Dobbs caught the GOP off guard.
In some Republican-controlled states, legislators passed sweeping abortion restrictions. Others passed more modest ones. But in both cases, the GOP let the loudest voices on the right define the Republican position on abortion, defending extreme positions and playing into Democratic framing.
Then there’s the Trump factor. It’s not just that Trump energizes the Democratic base — which is why Biden cynically elevated him in a speech last week — attacks on Trump also energize the GOP base, forcing Republicans to rally around him.
More important, the very nature of the scandal around Trump’s egregious mishandling of classified documents elicits a powerful déjà vu effect. The former president is claiming executive privilege — despite the fact that he’s no longer president — and talking like he’s an unjustly deposed king in internal exile. In terms of the national conversation, it feels like the guy never left.
By making himself the issue that defines a “good” Republican, Trump and his enablers have frittered away their advantage, turning what should be a referendum on the party in power into a choice between the two parties.
The other day William Barr, Trump’s former attorney general, said about the Mar-a-Lago search: “People say this was unprecedented, well, it’s also unprecedented for a president to take all this classified information and put them in a country club.”
It’s a good point with broader applicability. According to precedent, losing presidents go away. This allows their party to reinvent itself as the reasonable alternative to the party in power. That’s a big reason why the midterm curse is such a powerful precedent. The GOP complacently relied on that precedent while ignoring the reasons for its existence.