Was Tuesday’s midterm election a referendum on President Trump’s first two years in office?
Maybe yes, maybe no. Kinda sorta. Hard to say, really.
Nothing’s ever clear-cut with midterms. The mainstream media, of course, is painting them that way. But there’s so much that goes into the results.
Sometimes, voters just aren’t jazzed — and with no presidential race on the ticket, they stay home. The turnout is routinely tiny: Only about 40 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in midterm elections (usually, more than 60 percent do so during presidential years). And that number is getting worse. In 2014, just 36.7 percent in 2014, the lowest for a midterm since World War II.
But there’s this very clear fact: The party in the White House nearly always loses seats (sometimes a lot). President Obama’s Democratic Party lost a whopping 63 House seats in 2010, after Congress passed the Affordable Care Act.
That year, one MSM outlet pinned the blame squarely on Mr. Obama.
“Mr. Obama proved to be a major liability in the 2010 election,” CBS News reported the day after the 2010 election. “Fifty-five percent of voters disapproved of the way the president is handling his job, including 58 percent of independents. Of those who disapproved of Obama, 86 percent voted for a Republican House candidate. Even more to the point, 37 percent of voters overall, as well as 37 percent of independents, claimed a reason for their House vote was to express opposition to Mr. Obama.”
But CBS cited several other factors: “The Democratic Base Stayed Home,” “Independents Turned to the Right,” and “Disapproval of Performance from Obama and Congress.”
What’s more, the economy — for which presidents get blamed for when it’s bad and take credit when it’s good — was another huge factor. “Nowhere is this dissatisfaction more strongly felt than with Mr. Obama’s handling of the economy, the issue viewed as the most important facing the country by 62 percent of the midterm electorate,” CBS said.
So that makes 2018 an odd year. By all accounts — liberal and conservative — the economy is going great guns. Normally when that happens, the incumbent reaps some benefit (such as when President Clinton picked up five House seats in 1998, despite his ongoing sex scandal).
But presidents almost always lose seats in midterms — often regardless of the economy. Franklin Roosevelt lost 72 House seats in 1938 and 45 in 1942. Harry Truman lost 82 seats in his two midterms and Dwight Eisenhower 66. Lyndon Johnson lost 47 seats, Gerald Ford 48, Ronald Reagan 31, Bill Clinton 54 in his first midterm in 1994, George W. Bush 30 in his second midterm in 2006, and Barack Obama a total of 76 in his two midterms.
The losses for Mr. Obama were even deeper. When he took office in 2009, Democrats controlled both chambers of 27 state legislatures. When he left office, Democrats controlled just 13 states. And the Democratic Party lost a net total of 13 governorships and 816 state legislative seats during his time in office, the most of any president since Eisenhower, according to a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Yet here’s why it’s not always a referendum on the president. First, local elections like House and Senate seats far more often than not revolve around local issues. Second, the press has spent two solid years ripping the incumbent presidents (Republicans more than Democrats, but they still get banged up, too), and the American people just decide to go another direction.
And third and most importantly, the president’s not even on the ballot.
Still, today and for the foreseeable future, you’ll be hearing that the midterm elections were a referendum on Mr. Trump and a resounding defeat for his policies and agenda.
And it was kinda sorta.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @josephcurl.
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