Why the President's Party Loses Seats in Midterm Elections

The President's Party Almost Always Loses Seats in Congress

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt saw gains and losses during midterm elections. National Archives and Records Administration

Midterm elections are not friendly to the president's political party. Modern midterm elections have resulted in an average loss of 30 seats in the House of Representatives and Senate by the political party whose president occupies the White House.

Midterms, held in even years in the second year of a president's four-year term, are typically thought of as a barometer of the majority party's popularity among the electorate. And with few exceptions, they're pretty ugly.

Competing Theories

There are competing theories for why the president's party suffers in midterm elections. One 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 University of Houston's Robert S. Erikson, writing in the Journal of Politics, explains it this way:

"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."

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.

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.

Worst Midterm Election Losses

During the midterm election, one-third of the Senate and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives are at stake.

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 four other occasions, the president's party gained Senate seats and once it was a draw. On one occasion, the president's party gained House seats. The worst midterm losses tend to occur in a president's first term.

Modern midterm election results include:

  • In 2018, Republicans lost 39 seats—41 in the House while gaining two in the Senate—two years after the election of Republican President Donald Trump. With Trump as president, Republicans held both houses of Congress and the White House, and Democrats hoped to elect enough members of Congress to thwart their agenda. They managed only to secure the House.
  • In 2010, Democrats lost 69 seats—63 in the House and six in the Senate—while Democratic President Barack Obama was in the White House. Obama, who signed an overhaul of the nation's health care system that was deeply unpopular among Tea Party Republicans, later described the midterm results as a "shellacking."
  • In 2006, Republicans lost 36 seats—30 in the House and six in the Senate—while Republican President George W. Bush was in office. Voters had grown weary of the war in Iraq and took it out on Bush, one of only three presidents whose party has picked up seats in midterms since World War II. Bush called the 2006 midterms a "thumpin.'"
  • In 1994, Democrats lost 60 seats—52 in the House and eight in the Senate—while Democrat Bill Clinton was in office and the opposing party, led by conservative firebrand Newt Gingrich, orchestrated a successful "Republican Revolution" in Congress with its "Contract With America."

Exceptions to the Rule

There have been three midterms in which the president's party picked up seats since the 1930s. They are:

  • In 2002, the Republicans picked up 10 seats—eight in the House and two in the Senate—while Bush was in the White House. The election was held a year after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the Republican president's popularity surged amid the strong patriotic sentiment in the electorate.
  • In 1998, the Democrats picked up five seats—all in the House—in Clinton's second term, even as he faced impeachment hearings sought by Republicans amid the Monica Lewinsky scandal. 
  • In 1934, the Democrats picked up 18 seats—nine each in the House and Senate—while Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in office and putting in place the New Deal to ease the impact of The Great Depression.  

Midterm Election Results 

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. 

Year President Party House Senate Total
1934 Franklin D. Roosevelt D +9 +9 +18
1938 Franklin D. Roosevelt D -71 -6 -77
1942 Franklin D. Roosevelt D -55 -9 -64
1946 Harry S. Truman D -45 -12 -57
1950 Harry S. Truman D -29 -6 -35
1954 Dwight D. Eisenhower R -18 -1 -19
1958 Dwight D. Eisenhower R -48 -13 -61
1962 John F. Kennedy D -4 +3 -1
1966 Lyndon B. Johnson D -47 -4 -51
1970 Richard Nixon R -12 +2 -10
1974 Gerald R. Ford R -48 -5 -63
1978 Jimmy Carter D -15 -3 -18
1982 Ronald Reagan R -26 +1 -25
1986 Ronald Reagan R -5 -8 -13
1990 George Bush R -8 -1 -9
1994 William J. Clinton D -52 -8 -60
1998 William J. Clinton D +5 0 +5
2002 George W. Bush R +8 +2 +10
2006 George W. Bush R -30 -6 -36
2010 Barack Obama D -63 -6 -69
2014 Barack Obama D -13 -9 -21
2018 Donald Trump R -41 +2 -39

[Updated by Tom Murse in August 2018.]