On Mid-Term Elections for First-Term Presidents

Starting with the 20th Century, the following first-term Presidents of the United States have gained ground in midterm elections: T Roosevelt, F Roosevelt, GW Bush. That’s the list. Note the Teddy only gained ground in House elections, as the 17th Amendment had not yet been ratified.

First-term Presidents get killed in midterm elections. The two exceptions are crisis Presidents: Bush after 9/11 and FDR in the Depression. I remember being terribly surprised in 2002 that Bush gained ground; I figured that, at best, he’d just hold serve. I was, of course, wrong about that. As much as the Obama administration calls the current economic situation a crisis, it clearly does not rise to the level of the Depression or 9/11. I, for one, am thankful for that.

Many folks have criticized Obama for pushing a liberal agenda early in his first term as President, choosing to push big-picture, big-government ideas early on. I think that was the right call for his administration, because they undoubtedly know the history. Bill Clinton came to office with healthcare on his agenda, but fumbling it around in his first term ended up sinking it, and with the Contract for America class of Republicans sweeping through in 1994, any chance of getting his ideas through Congress intact ended as soon as the last polls closed.

As someone who generally favors President Obama’s platform, I think that his strategy was a good one, even though the narrative is now about how the public wants a course correction. I do get that many Americans do, but Americans vote for politicians for many reasons, and single issues or broad themes do not generally apply. If Bud Cramer had not retired a few years ago, I expect that AL-5 would have remained Democrat, but that would have not been some announcement that North Alabama is pro-“Obamacare” or pro-big-government. Huntsville just isn’t—except where it comes to government spending on NASA and defense, and then we’re as big-government as it gets.

I’ll forgive journalists for wanting to make the 2010 midterm elections fit a narrative: journalists have to tell a story to hold viewer/reader interest, and a simple theme will do that. Would people stay tuned to CNN if Wolf Blitzer stood in front of a green screen and said, “First-term presidents in mid-term elections always lose ground”? No, people would nod off and flip over to Jersey Shore. But you, dear reader, care enough about context to read ~450 words from me on the subject, and are maybe interested enough to go do some reading yourself on the history. Chances ar you weren’t swayed by a single attack ad, either.

2 thoughts on “On Mid-Term Elections for First-Term Presidents”

  1. This intrigued me so I began looking at the makeup of congress over my lifetime. I think the obvious reason that there were very few pickups was because during the presidential election, members of congress from the same party as the incoming president were voted in on his coat tails. It seems to me that would be harder to sustain in midterms.
    I think it is also interesting to look at the makeup of congress when the new president was elected. For example, until the 104th congress (1995) the house was solid democrat, so for democratic presidents, the house may have been already ‘saturated’ there may have been no way to go but down. And until Reagan came in in 1981 the Senate was solid democrat. To your point, it only stayed republican for 2 years.
    Interesting study, thanks for pointing it out.

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