Why the President's Party Loses Seats in Midterm Elections

The President's Party Always Loses Seats in Congress

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt granted the most presidential pardons in history. 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.

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 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. 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

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. The worst midterm losses tend to occur in a president's first term.

Modern midterm election results include:

  • 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."
  • In 1974, Republicans lost 63 seats, 48 in the House and five in the Senate, while Republican President Gerald Ford was in office. The election was held just months after President Richard M. Nixon resigned from the White House in disgrace amid the Watergate scandal

Exceptions to the Rule

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

  • The 2002 midterms, in which 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. 
  • And 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 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 
1934Franklin D. RooseveltD+9+9+18
1938Franklin D. RooseveltD-71-6-77
1942Franklin D. RooseveltD-55-9-64
1946Harry S. TrumanD-45-12-57
1950Harry S. TrumanD-29-6-35
1954Dwight D. EisenhowerR-18-1-19
1958Dwight D. EisenhowerR-48-13-61
1962John F. KennedyD-4+3-1
1966Lyndon B. JohnsonD-47-4-51
1970Richard NixonR-12+2-10
1974Gerald R. FordR-48-5-63
1978Jimmy CarterD-15-3-18
1982Ronald ReaganR-26+1-25
1986Ronald ReaganR-5-8-13
1990George BushR-8-1-9
1994William J. ClintonD-52-8-60
1998William J. ClintonD+50+5
2002George W. BushR+8+2+10
2006George W. BushR-30-6-36
2010Barack ObamaD-63-6-69
2014Barack ObamaD-13-9-21

 

[Updated by Tom Murse in August 2018.]