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HISTORICALLY SPEAKING: Midterm elections

Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report
Incumbent Congressman Steve Russell (R-Choctaw) scoops ice cream for customer's at a Braum's in south Oklahoma City on Thursday. Russell is running for re-election.
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CHICKASHA, Okla. -- With the midterms approaching, it is finally time for the American people to voice their opinion of the Trump presidency, or so we are being told.  Since Trump’s victory, with every special election we are bombarded with how this one election is the touchstone of America’s approval of the president.  I have two statement about the midterm elections.  First, I predict the Republicans will lose seats.  Secondly, all the chatter is wrong.  This election will not predict the future of Trump in the 2020 election.  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 to start as any.  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 with his New Deal policies to relieve the nation’s pain.  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.  Based off that election, FDR cruised to an easy win in the 1936 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.  In 1938, the Democrats lost 72 seats in the House and seven in the Senate, yet FDR won the 1940 election 449 to 82.  In 1942, the Democrats lost 45 seats in the House and eight in the senate, with FDR winning the 1944 election 432 to 99. 

For the rest of the story, because of size restraints, we will only look at midterm elections before a successful reelection of a president.  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 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.  People today forget how popular Nixon was before Watergate, as seen by his 520-17 victory 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 1984, 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.  This brings us to 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, Republicans 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 when Republicans lose seats this November that Trump 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 Trump 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 Trump’s reelection.

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.   To follow Historically Speaking on Facebook search for @jamesWfinck

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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