5 Reasons Why the 2014 Midterms Are Most Like ... 1918

Except for William McKinley defeating William Jennings Bryan twice in a row and Dwight Eisenhower doing the same to Adlai Stevenson, American political history rarely repeats itself exactly. “America is change,” wrote visiting British journalist James Bryce in The American Commonwealth (1888). Thomas Jefferson in 1800 and Andrew Jackson in 1828 won their rematches with the Adams family -- John and John Quincy, respectively. Ronald Reagan lost the Republican nomination to Richard Nixon in 1968 and to Jerry Ford in 1976, but clobbered Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Beyond campaigns, America has often been bursting with social changes. Here’s an alarming report from a presidential commission:

Birth control, race riots, stoppage of immigration ... governmental corruption, crime and racketeering, the sprawl of great cities … imperialism, peace or war, international relations, urbanism … shifting moral standards, new leadership in business and government, the status of womankind, labor, child training, mental hygiene, the future of democracy and capitalism ... all of these grave questions demand attention if we are not to shift into zones of danger.

Was that warning from the 1960s or 1970s? Or from 2013? No, that was written for President Hoover just before the Great Crash of 1929. Concern regarding too-rapid change has been a staple of American life for many decades, and the run-up to the 2014 midterm elections has much in common with other years. Midterm elections usually have unique dynamics of new candidates facing off against different presidential administrations, but sometimes the similarities and the patterns are strong. Several previous midterm election years show a strong parallel to 2014 on political, economic, foreign policy, social/cultural, and on general grounds.

The Political Factor

We should probably only analyze midterm elections starting with 1914, because that was the first year that the popular vote was used to decide all U.S. Senate elections. Elections in the middle of a president’s second term often result in sharp losses for the president’s party -- the so-called “six-year itch.” In the second midterm elections for Woodrow Wilson (1918), Franklin Roosevelt (1938), Dwight Eisenhower (1958), the Kennedy-Johnson years (1966), the Nixon-Ford years (1974), Ronald Reagan (1986), and George W. Bush (2006), the opposition made significant gains. They all have much in common with President Obama’s second midterm in 2014. Steady GOP gains are the easiest prediction to make this year.

The Economic Factor

In the 1992 presidential election, James Carville famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” That has often been the case in midterms. In 1918, war-time inflation was at 2% per month, a twentieth century record. Republicans won both houses of Congress. In 1922, Republicans lost 77 seats in the post-World War I recession caused by converting industry from war-time production. In 1930 and 1931, as the Great Depression deepened, Republicans lost the House. In 1938, a quick recession helped the Republicans climb back from total irrelevance (the GOP had only 16 senators in 1937). In 1958, a steep recession in Ike’s second term resulted in the Democrats’ biggest landslide since 1936. In 1966, rising prices played a minor role in the big Republican comeback after Goldwater’s landslide loss two years earlier. And in 1978, soaring inflation helped kick off the “tax revolt” that would help doom Carter in 1980.