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.
The Foreign Policy Flare-up Factor
It isn’t always “the economy, stupid.” Foreign crises have often played a huge role. In 1918, the beginning of a backlash against Woodrow Wilson’s policies in World War I cost his party the Senate and any chance of ratifying the League of Nations treaty. In 1946, the beginning of the Cold War saw a Republican sweep of both Houses. In 1950, the hot war in Korea saw GOP gains and the beginning of the end for Harry Truman. In 1966, Vietnam hurt the Democrats, and in 2006, Iraq hurt the Republicans. In 2002, George W. Bush’s leadership in the War on Terror helped his party to surprising midterm gains, one of only three times that has happened in the last 100 years. It isn’t too difficult to see voters being worried about Mideast turmoil, Russian adventurism in Eastern Europe, and chaos at the Mexican border. And it’s easy to predict that President Obama’s opposition will be the beneficiaries of such worries.
In 1918, Prohibition had passed Congress in December of 1917 and was picking up steam as more states ratified the 18th Amendment. In 1938, FDR’s plan to pack the Supreme Court with new Democratic appointees rallied traditional conservatives. In 1966, the backlash against race riots, soaring crime rates, and the counterculture led to a huge Republican victory, including a former actor becoming governor of California. In 1994, anger against Bill Clinton’s policy of allowing gays to openly serve in the military alienated many voters in the South and heartland, thus helping to spark the first Republican House majority in four decades. In 2010, the Tea Party movement rose as a reaction to President Obama’s promise to “fundamentally change” American society.
The General Vibe
Needless to say, the overall mood of the electorate impacts every election. As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote after the 1980 election, “the first rule of democracy is throw the rascals out.” When voters are upset with the national condition, whether it’s due to economic, foreign policy, or social problems, they almost always throw the bums out, regardless of party. Such a mood resulted in at least one house of Congress changing hands in the midterms of 1918 (the exhaustion from World War I), 1930 (the Depression), 1946 (the exhaustion from World War II when the Republican slogan was “had enough?”), 1954 (a minor recession), 1966 (Middle America’s general bewilderment at the social changes rocking America in the sixties), 1986 (ditto), 1994 (the backlash against Clinton’s health care bill, his tax increases and gays in the military), 2006 (the Iraq War) and 2010 (the backlash against Obama’s health care bill, his tax and spending increases and gay rights). Nor is the foul mood of 2014 a new development. Long-term data from the Polling Report shows the last time a majority of Americans were positive about the country’s direction was in the early days of the Iraq War in 2003.
I believe the previous midterm year most like 2014 is 1918, though 1938 and 1966 are a close second. Here’s the reasoning: 2014 looks like it may have all of the five factors that drive a “change” election. President Obama and the Democrats clearly have had the second-term blues since the flawed rollout of his health care plan in October 2013. As for the economy, only a stunning 3% of Americans told a June 2014 CNN poll that the economy had “completely recovered” from the crash of 2008. (And 27% believed it was “continuing to worsen.”) Fully 69% told CNN that they thought it was either “very or somewhat likely” that the U.S. would experience another financial crisis like 2008. As for foreign crises, just look at Iraq, Syria, Israel, Gaza, Libya, Egypt, Russia, and Ukraine. Social issues remain controversial, too: gay marriage is still not widely accepted, immigration reform is probably scuttled by the chaos in Central America, and ObamaCare remains the hottest domestic issue. And when 60% of voters consistently say the country is on the wrong track, that can hardly be good news for the president’s party.
Democrats had better pray that the 1918 comparison doesn’t hold up, because their defeat of 1918 was followed by the Democratic disaster of 1920, when Warren Harding swept the country on the platform of “return to normalcy” in the greatest victory percentage margin (60 to 34%) of the 20th Century and also cracked the Democratic “Solid South” for the first time since the Civil War era. Republicans will surely be hoping that history repeats itself.