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Coattails and Popularity: Two Dominant Theories to Explain why the President's Party Historically Loses in the Midterms

Article by: Isabella Ritchie

Back to the Ballots

Every 4 years, America turns to the ballot boxes to vote in the midterms, leaving pundits forecasting possible outcomes for the Democrats and Republicans. Widely known is a phenomenon surrounding the midterms in which the party of the incumbent president almost always loses in the House of Representatives, with a similar pattern following in the Senate. According to the politics analysis platform FiveThirtyEight, a staggering 36 of 40 midterms since 1862 resulted in a loss of partisan control for the president. But a lot has happened in the U.S. and across the world since the last time voters went to the polls, leaving many to speculate: Will Joe Biden and the Democratic Party beat the odds?

For Our Non-US Readers: What are the Midterms?

Every two years, halfway into a presidential term, the US public is given the opportunity to vote for representatives in the House of Representatives (usually simply referred to as “the House”) and a third of the seats in the U.S. Senate. The House is the lower chamber of Congress and the Senate the upper. Together, these form the US federal legislature. While all 435 seats in the House are contested, only 35 of the 100 seats in the Senate are up for re-election. Essentially, the midterms determine which political party will control the legislative branch. Whoever controls Congress, gets to set the legislative agenda for the next two years. If President Biden’s Democrats lose, a Gridlock is likely to ensue, making it near impossible to pass new legislation when it falls along party lines (which it almost always does).

Historically the midterms have a lower voter turnout than presidential elections. However, data from the electoral reform group, FairVote, shows that voter turnout has been on the rise over the past decade. This suggests a positive sign of rising political engagement in a nation which has struggled with increasing voter apathy over the past few decades. Even communities which have traditionally been impeded from voting due to a lower inability to reach polling stations, tighter ID measures, and other factors, are increasing their turnouts.

The History of Midterm Losses

According to The New York Times, since the Second World War, the incumbent president’s party has lost their majority in the House in every single midterm election. While the losses may vary significantly, they averaged 30 seats. Even in the Senate, it is extremely rare for the holding party to gain seats. The 2018 midterm elections were the first since 2002 in which the president’s party gained seats in the Senate. It is clear that these losses in the midterms are more than just a frequent tendency, they are an established phenomenon.

The Coattails Theory; the Harder They Come, the Harder They Fall

One of the most commonly cited theories to explain these phenomenon is known as the Presidential Coattails Effect. The term is used to describe when a favoured political candidate attracts votes to other candidates of the same political party. However, in the context of midterm elections, Coattails roughly translates to: ‘the more popular the incumbent president at the time of their previous election, the worse off they fare in the midterms.’ This is because the more popular the president at the time of election, the greater the expectations are for their ability to produce change. Then when the midterms come around and the president has not met these expectations, the greater the public’s disapproval of them.

Popularity Theory

Another explanation cited for midterm losses is the Popularity Theory. It looks at the economy and political landscape at the time of the election. According to Popularity Theory, the midterms are a reflection of the popular view towards the economy and incumbent president. For example, during the 2010 midterms, the US was still suffering greatly from the impact of the 2008 financial crash. Unemployment peaked at 10.6 per cent in January 2010 according to online statistics platform Statista. Although it had begun to decrease by the time of the midterms, it was still devastatingly high. Many view this as the reason for the Democrat’s staggering loss of 63 seats in the House of Representatives. The president’s popularity almost always faces a significant drop following their election. This is key to Popularity Theory — the greater the decline in popularity following a president’s election, the more significant the midterm loss are said to be.

What Does This Mean for the November 2022 Elections?

From the perspective of the Coattails Theory, President Biden and the Democrats may not have to fear significant losses this time round. They won with a very small majority at the last election cycle. Statista reports Biden won just 51.3 per cent of the public vote and the Democrats won 50.8 per cent of seats in the House, with 47 per cent of seats in the Senate. According to the Coattails Theory, their small majority makes them less likely to lose drastically in November.

However, Popularity Theory paints a slightly less optimistic future for the president’s Party. According to FiveThirtyEight, Joe Biden’s approval rating in July was one of the lowest of any president at this point in time in the presidency, sitting at just 37.9 per cent, which is only 4.9 per cent above President Truman all-time-low in 1946. Although it has since risen to 42.7, the Democrats could face potentially devastating losses in both the House and the Senate.

Despite this, according The Economist, Biden’s approval for re-election has improved by two points since the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe V. Wade. Following the decision, President Biden called for people to take action at the polls. Since then, statistics from The Economist show that the share of female voters has increased from just below 50 per cent to 55.5 per cent. This share is particularly concentrated in areas where the abortion debate has been most distinct, and in potential swing states for the midterms. This alone could be key to preventing the Democrats from a doomed fate. Will President Biden break the trend and maintain partisan control of the legislatures this November? If there is one thing that can be taken away from the last few years, it is that we should always be prepared for the unexpected to happen.

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