Historical Midterm Election Results

Why the President's Party Always Loses in Midterm Elections

Campaigning for office during the midterm elections.
Appearing in parades is an effective way of campaign for office. Win McNamee/Getty Images

If you look through historical midterm election results for the House and Senate, you'll see a pretty clear trend emerges. The president's political party almost always loses seats - on average about 30 or so - in midterm elections. So why is that? 

First things first. What are midterm elections?

Midterm elections are the congressional elections held in even years in the second year of a president's four-year term.

They are typically portrayed as a barometer of the majority party's popularity among the electorate. 

Which brings us to why the president's party almost always loses. There are two competing theories. The first is the belief that a president who is elected in a landslide, or because of a "coattails effect," will suffer deep losses in the midterms. The "coattail effect"  is a reference to the effect a very popular candidate president has on voters and candidates for office who are also on the ballot in presidential election years. Candidates of a popular presidential candidate's party are swept into office on their coattails.

But what happens two years later in the midterm elections? Apathy.

"The stronger the presidential victory margin or the more seats won in the presidential year and therefore "at risk," the greater will be the subsequent midterm seat loss," explains the University of Houston's Robert S.

Erikson, writing in the Journal of Politics.

Another reason: the so-called "presidential penalty," or the tendency of more voters to go the polls only when they are angry. If more angry voters vote than do satisfied voters, the president's party loses.

What Happens in a Midterm Election?

In the United States, voters typically express dissatisfaction with the president's party and remove some of his senators and members of the House of Representatives.

Midterm elections provide a check on the president's power and give power to the electorate. But they have also been criticized for allegedly creating gridlock in the American political system.

Wrote Yascha Mounk on Quartz.com:

"Midterms tend to foster short-term thinking - but only because voters tend to punish or reward politicians for such factors as the state of the economy. Midterms focus the minds of politicians on campaigns - but only because voters reward their representatives for taking the time to talk to them. And midterms tend to create political gridlock - but only because voters are often disappointed with their political leaders, choosing to limit their powers when they get the chance.

What Are the Procedures for Midterm Elections?

Midterm elections are held two years after a Presidential election; one-third of the Senate and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives are at stake. Conventional wisdom holds that the President's party will lose seats during a midterm election.

In the 21 midterm elections held since 1934, only twice has the president's party gained seats in both the Senate and the House: Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first midterm election and George W. Bush's first midterm election.

On three other occasions, the President's party gained House seats and once it was a draw. On one occasion, the president's party gained Senate seats.

If a President serves two terms, generally speaking the greater loss occurs during his first midterm election. Notable exceptions, again: FDR and GWB.

What Other Countries Use Midterm Elections?

The United States is not the only country that holds midterm elections. Argentina, Liberia, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines, India, and Nepal also hold midterm elections.

Historical Midterm Election Results in the United States

This chart shows the number of seats in the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate that the president's party won or lost during midterm elections dating back to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Note: The source of this information is the The American Presidency Project.

 Year  President  Party  Approval Rating in October   House  Senate 
1934Franklin D. RooseveltD +9+9
1938Franklin D. RooseveltD60 percent-71-6
1942Franklin D. RooseveltD -55-9
1946Harry S. TrumanD27 percent-45-12
1950Harry S. TrumanD41 percent-29-6
1954Dwight D. EisenhowerR -18-1
1958Dwight D. EisenhowerR -48-13
1962John F. KennedyD61 percent-4+3
1966Lyndon B. JohnsonD44 percent-47-4
1970Richard NixonR -12+2
1974Gerald R. FordR -48-5
1978Jimmy CarterD49 percent-15-3
1982Ronald ReaganR42 percent-26+1
1986Ronald ReaganR -5-8
1990George BushR57 percent-8-1
1994William J. ClintonD48 percent-52-8
1998William J. ClintonD65 percent+50
2002George W. BushR67 percent+8+2
2006George W. BushR37 percent-30-6
2010Barack ObamaD45 percent-63-6
2014Barack ObamaD41 percent-13-9


[Edited by Tom Murse]