The US midterm elections are taking place on November 4, and they are expected to produce some important changes. However, the midterm elections have a long and varied history. Here, Rebecca Fachner tells us about some of the more interesting midterms from the past.


Midterm elections are coming up in the United States on Tuesday November 4, 2014 and the pundits and political gurus are predicting a record low voter turn out. Midterm elections traditionally have a much lower voter turn out than presidential elections; often only 25 to 30 percent of the electorate turns out to vote, much lower than presidential cycles, which recently have usually been in the 55 to 60 percent range. What is remarkable about this is that midterms can be just as important politically. Historically, midterm elections have had quite a bit of political significance and it will be interesting to see what 2014 brings. In anticipation of the elections, and hopefully to encourage interest in the process, we will look back at what midterm elections have meant historically.  Here is a brief, non-partisan, non-political history of midterm elections in America.

 Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidential portrait. Roosevelt has a very much unwanted midterm record.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidential portrait. Roosevelt has a very much unwanted midterm record.


First, a definition. The term itself is confusing, because why would the US have an election in the middle of a term. Whose term are these elections in the middle of? The president’s term, as it turns out. As everyone knows, presidential elections are every 4 years, but in the middle of each president’s term, he is faced with an election, not for himself, but for the 435 members of the House of Representatives, and 33 senators. Each Congressperson has to get himself or herself reelected every 2 years. Senators have 6-year terms, but the 100 senators have staggered elections, so the country isn’t faced with electing 100 senators all at once. The 100 Senators are broken into 3 equal classes, so that one third of the Senate is up for election every 2 years. In addition, many states elect their governors during the midterm elections; 36 governors face election in 2014.

Midterm elections are generally seen as a referendum on the president, even though he isn’t the one on the ballot. Especially in a president’s first term in office, the midterms are a way of gauging public support for the president’s policies. If the electorate disapproves of the way the president has governed for 2 years, they will ‘punish’ him at the polls by electing Congressmen from the opposite party. If the president’s policies are favorable to the population, they will elect more members of his own party. For most first term presidents, however, midterm elections are a decisive swing away from his party. Almost every president in the modern era has seen his own party lose seats in his first midterm elections. 

The only modern presidents to actually gain ground in their first midterms were George W. Bush and Franklin Roosevelt. Both of their second midterms more than made up for it, however, FDR’s Democrats lost a record 71 seats in the House and 6 in the Senate, and Bush lost 30 seats in the House and 6 in the Senate. FDR even holds second place on the number of seats lost in the midterms: in his third midterms in 1942, the Democrats lost 55 seats in the House and 9 in the Senate. In more recent times, the record for the most dramatic loss goes to President Clinton, whose Democratic party lost 52 seats in his first midterms in 1994, and 8 seats in the Senate. The strangest outcome in modern times might be in 1962, when Kennedy’s Democrats lost 4 seats in the House but gained 3 in the Senate.



Although midterms have been happening since the beginning of the republic, the first one that has retained any significance was in 1858, the last midterms before the Civil War. The 1858 midterms were a decisive vote against President James Buchanan and his Democratic Party’s endorsement of slavery. The Democrats split bitterly over slavery, allowing the nascent Republican Party to gain significant ground. The Republican Party was formed in large part to get rid of slavery, and their overwhelming election to Congress fueled talk among Southerners of seceding from a country that clearly did not share their way of life. The election further underscored the dangerous divisions across the country and was a prelude to 1860 when the next election helped to spur secession.

The Republican Party remained in control of Congress through the Civil War and Reconstruction, into the 1870s. After Ulysses S. Grant had been reelected, his second midterm elections in 1874 became a referendum on Reconstruction and the Economic Panic of 1873. Voters decided they were tired of Reconstruction, tired of spending money on it and ended the Republican majority in Congress, ushering in a Democratic majority that would unceremoniously end Reconstruction.

The midterms in 1910 helped to cause such a split in the Republican Party that it fractured in half. Theodore Roosevelt declined to run for a third term in 1908, but, unwilling to give up control completely, handpicked his successor, William Howard Taft. Taft was ostensibly a progressive, like Roosevelt, but in 2 years managed to alienate the progressive wing of the Republican Party to such an extent that the progressives revolted in the 1910 midterms. Roosevelt was so horrified that his successor was abandoning his progressive principles that he hurried back from his travels abroad and decided to run for a third term as an independent in 1912. Roosevelt essentially started his own progressive third party, the Bull Moose Party, and became the first credible third party candidate for President in American history. Unfortunately, he wasn’t credible enough, and votes split between him and Taft, allowing Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the White House in 1912.



Midterm elections are always seen as if they are a national reaction to the previous political turmoil, and nowhere is that more true than in 1966. This was Lyndon Johnson’s first (and only) midterm election, and it was in the midst of an incredibly turbulent moment in American history. Johnson had become president just under 3 years prior, in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, an event that deeply shocked the nation. Johnson had won the presidency outright in 1964, bringing with him a liberal onslaught that quickly went to work, passing some of the most important and divisive legislation in modern times, Medicare and Civil Rights.  The midterms in 1966 combined a conservative backlash, as well as dissatisfaction over the escalation of the Vietnam War to put an end to Johnson’s liberal tidal wave. The backlash was so severe that it set the scene for 1968 when Richard Nixon was elected to the White House.

The most memorable midterms of the last several decades were in 1994. 1994 was such a huge shift toward the Republican Party and such a massive repudiation of Bill Clinton and his liberal policies that it was called the Death of Liberalism. Clinton spent his first 2 years in office trying to reform health care among other liberal causes, and Republicans made him pay in 1994. The election was described variously as a bloodbath or a Republican revolution, and brought in a huge Republican majority in Congress. It is not entirely clear whether the Republicans were the winners in the long term, however, as his huge loss in the midterms forced Clinton to become more moderate, something that paved the way for his reelection in 1996.

The midterms in 2014 will do several crucial things; for starters they will determine the lay of the land in advance of the 2016 presidential elections. Similar to Bush’s second midterms in 2006, the President is expected to lose significant support. In 2006 Democrats won a landslide, which underscored how unpopular Bush had become. The election will also make President Obama virtually a lame duck for 2 years. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the midterms of 2014 will begin the 2016 presidential campaign. In the last few decades, particularly since the beginning of 24-hour news cycles, the midterms have come to represent the unofficial opening of the next presidential campaign. It is considered improper to begin to campaign for the next election before this one has been held, so midterms have come to mark the unofficial beginning of the next presidential cycle. Prospective presidential candidates will begin jockeying for position before the votes have even been counted. In retrospect, this may be the reason that voter turn out for midterm elections is so low and drops lower with every midterm; perhaps voters are just exhausted by the process and reluctant to begin the presidential cycle all over again.


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