Election

The President and the 2018 Midterm Elections

posted by Jeffrey Lord - 1.16.18

And so it begins.

The drumbeat that President Trump is going to be the proximate cause of the GOP loss of both the House and Senate in the 2018 mid-term elections has begun. Here is a typical headline, this one from Politico in December.

Republicans fear Trump could jeopardize control of Congress

Sounds bad. But wait! That wasn’t written in December of 2017. No, that headline and its accompanying story warning that disaster lay ahead because of Donald Trump was written in, yes, December of 2015! That’s right. All those wussy Republican Establishment types were wringing their hands that Trump was so wrecking the party that it would “translate into lost Senate and House seats in 2016.” Instead, the GOP under Trump’s leadership scored the trifecta, winning the House, the Senate and the White House.

But this hasn’t stopped the same kind of story from starting all over again as the 2018 midterms arrive. Here’s The Hill’s version.

Republicans fear deep losses in 2018 elections

“Every single President of the US from Roosevelt through Obama has suffered defeat in these midterm elections. There were a mere three exceptions…”

The story focuses on state legislative seats and begins:

“After years of strong gains in states across the country, Republicans now fear they stand to lose hundreds of state legislative seats in next year’s midterm elections if there is a significant voter backlash against President Trump.”

Over at CNN, this was the headline:

Trump allies worry that losing the House means impeachment

If there is one certainty in 2018 it is that there will be hundreds of headlines of a similar nature as the November elections approach. The GOP will lose the House! The GOP will lose the Senate! Trump is finished! Plug in other years and the names of other presidents and one quickly sees how wrong all of this can be.  Typical of the breed is this from NYU professor Ian Bremmer. Bremmer this week tweeted Gallup first year presidential approval ratings. As follows:

Which is misleading. Bush 41 and Carter wound up doing badly in their midterms – and losing re-election. And of the others, more in a moment.

Which is why it is critical for the GOP to keep its head.

In 1986 I was the member of the Reagan White House political office tasked with responsibility for House elections. As the Los Angeles Times recently reported: “Going back to 1862, the president’s party has averaged a loss of 32 seats in midterm elections. In modern times, the president’s party has lost seats in 18 of the last 20 midterms, with an average loss of 33 seats.”

In 1986 the Reagan White House lost five seats – a victory of sorts. But alas, after winning the Senate in 1980 for the first time in 28 years, the upper chamber was lost again.

Four years earlier in the 1982 elections, there had been a seeming disaster. President Reagan’s poll numbers were tanking with the recession, his tax and budget cuts from 1981 not yet having kicked in. His approval before the election stood at a Trump-style 42%. There was one poll that the experts of the day focused on: a full 49% of those who had voted for Reagan in 1980 said they wouldn’t do so again if he ran for re-election. But would he even run?

Reagan biographer Lou Cannon had a book out on Reagan that came out in 1982 after the losing midterms. Cannon, a longtime journalist then working for The Washington Post wrote this in his epilogue:

“By 1982, it was an axiom in the White House that Reagan, like so many of his modern predecessors, would be a one-term President.

I believe that Reagan will not run again…”

In fact not only did Reagan run again, in 1984 he won a 49-state landslide re-election. And Reagan was not alone in this performance that used poor midterms as a predictor of a President’s re-election capability. Presidents as different as Nixon and Clinton suffered dismal midterms in 1970 and 1994 that launched all kinds of speculation about one term presidencies. Both won re-election, with Nixon, like Reagan, getting a 49 state landslide. They were not alone, either. FDR’s 1938 midterm failure and another in 1942 were followed by strong re-election victories to unprecedented third and fourth terms in 1940 and 1944. Truman was clobbered badly in the 1946 elections – losing both House and Senate – and in an upset not equaled until Trump’s over Hillary Clinton won a stunning re-election over the heavily favored Republican and New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey.

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What is the lesson? The hard political fact is that midterms for incumbent presidents of either party are, historically speaking, anywhere from bad to terrible. In fact, every single President of the United States from Franklin Roosevelt in 1938 all the way through Barack Obama in 2014 has suffered defeat in these midterm elections. There were a mere three exceptions.

1962 – Coming on the heels of the tense Cuban Missile Crisis the previous month of October, President John F. Kennedy was basking in the glow of forcing Russian missiles out of Cuba in a hair-raising nuclear standoff. The GOP won a mere four House seats while the Democrats increased their Senate margin by four.

1998 – The nation was unhappily in the midst of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. The GOP lost four House seats in an effective backlash to its efforts to impeach President Bill Clinton. The setback was big enough that it caused the resignation of GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich. In the Senate, the results were a wash, with each side winning and losing enough seats to exactly cancel out a victory for the GOP. In essence a Democratic win.

2002 – The election came just over a year after the 9/11 attacks. As with JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Americans had instinctively rallied around President George W. Bush. War with Iraq loomed, and Bush was riding high. The GOP won an additional eight seats in the House and two in the Senate, switching the latter from Democrat-control to Republican-control.

And….that’s it. The mid-terms of Presidents Roosevelt (1938 and 1942), Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 41 and Obama were all varying shades of disaster. While Clinton and Bush 43 broke the mid-term loss rule in 1998 and 2002, neither escaped completely. Clinton was clobbered by the Gingrich Revolution in 1994 and Bush finally lost the House in 2006. While FDR made out well in 1934 – he hit the rocks as mentioned in 1938. The pattern goes further back, much further back.

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Does this mean certain disaster lies ahead for President Trump and the GOP? No. It will be a long year. Any number of factors could change the political dynamic, beginning with the economy. And right now the economy is going gangbusters. As 9/11 indicated for Bush 43 and the Cuban Missile Crisis for JFK, any kind of foreign policy crisis can quickly rally the country to Trump.

But without doubt, Republicans need to keep their campaign promises. Read: Build the wall. The worst of all worlds here will be if Republicans sabotage themselves by not funding that wall as they failed to repeal and replace ObamaCare. (Although they did recover with the tax bill and halting the ObamaCare mandatory tax.) If the perception is out there that the GOP is campaigning on A but then, once elected, not only refusing to pass A but instead pass Z? The GOP base itself will make short work of their own GOP majorities if they sense that re-election means more failure. One doesn’t have to have Steve Bannon out there on the stump campaigning against GOP Establishment candidates to have a full-scale rebellion from the base in play. Nothing speaks to that more than the very presence of Donald Trump in the White House.

Which brings up the role of the President himself. Process counts. Presidential fundraising for endangered House and Senate members or marginal candidates, plus videos of candidate and president for ads in districts and states where the President’s supporters are located en masse can be critical. If anything is clear it is that President Trump has a singular ability to upend the conventional wisdom, and certainly he will have that chance in 2018.

But a GOP loss in 2018? Would that spell the defeat of the President in a 2020 re-election bid? If in fact, the GOP loses per the traditional midterm pattern the media is going to try and say just that.

And they would be wrong. As they have been wrong over and over again not only with this President but others over the years as well.