How midterm elections influence the next presidential race
President Joe Biden is often compared to Jimmy Carter, but his best midterm election scenario is to be another Ronald Reagan.
As Reagan approached his first-term election, the Federal Reserve had ramped up its efforts to curb inflation. While this pushed the economy into recession, something Biden would like to avoid, by October 1982, inflation had fallen to a third of its peak. Soon, interest rates started to come down, unemployment declined, and the economy rebounded. None of this happened quickly enough to salvage the midterm elections for the president’s party, but the resulting economic boom powered the senior citizen in the White House to a 49-state landslide two years later.
Biden may yet avoid a recession by the midterm elections, though that could lower his chances of being as fortunate as Reagan when it comes to the next presidential election cycle. But one point still stands: While the midterm elections are often a rebuke of the sitting president, they don’t necessarily predict the outcome of his race for reelection.
The previous two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, endured heavy midterm election losses halfway through their first terms. Clinton saw the first Republican majority in the House of Representatives in 40 years as the GOP picked up more than 50 seats. Republicans won the Senate that year as well.
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Obama rightly called the 2010 election a “shellacking.” Republicans gained 63 seats in the House, retaking the majority. They also added six Senate seats but fell short of capturing control of that chamber. But it was still a far cry from the filibuster-proof majority Democrats briefly held early in Obama’s presidency.
In both cases, political obituaries were written for the Democrats in the White House. Clinton was forced to defend his own relevance at a press conference in 1995. “I am relevant,” he protested at an event carried by only one major network. “The Constitution gives me relevance.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) vowed to make Obama a “one-term president.” So did various candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Then-Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) even made that commitment a campaign slogan. Obama himself had said before his political fortunes faltered that if the economy did not turn around three years into his term, “then there’s going to be a one-term proposition.”
The 1994 and 2010 elections were waged as referendums against the incumbent presidents, who were both unpopular. So were their healthcare reform plans, which were the key to branding them as reckless government growers.
Clinton couldn’t get his — and wife Hillary Clinton’s — out of Congress even with the Democrats controlling both houses. Obama’s passed by narrow margins, becoming law in what Biden famously described as a “big f***ing deal.” Unfortunately for vulnerable Democrats who pushed the Affordable Care Act over the top, voters also had profane thoughts about it. The legislative procedures and political compromises involved in its passage — budget reconciliation, “deem and pass,” the “Cornhusker kickback,” and last-minute overtures to a handful of anti-abortion Democrats in the House — were denounced as corrupt bargains. Republicans vowed to “repeal and replace” the law.
The Clinton health plan remained an easy target for Republicans because its failure to pass gave Democrats nothing concrete to counter the GOP messaging on the issue. After “Obamacare,” as the Affordable Care Act came to be called, passed, voters got to see what was in it, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) promised. The problem was many did not like it.
A major sticking point was that it proved more disruptive to people’s existing healthcare arrangements than Obama had promised. “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor,” the White House website said. “If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep your healthcare plan.” The fact-checking website PolitiFact found 37 instances of Obama saying things along these lines. For a significant number of Americans, this proved untrue.
Nevertheless, the political obituaries for Clinton and Obama were premature. Instead, the Democrats’ midterm election setbacks actually helped them hold on to the White House. The existence of Republican majorities gave them political foils to run against who were more polarizing than their real general election opponents — then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich in Clinton’s case, the tea party as a whole in Obama’s. No longer were the elections referendums on struggling presidents but a binary choice involving the other party.
Clinton cast congressional Republicans as anti-government extremists. He successfully blamed them for government shutdowns. He more controversially implied they bore some responsibility for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the militia movement. Obama portrayed the GOP on the Hill as willfully obstructionist, using McConnell’s one-term quote to argue Republicans were putting the 2012 presidential contest above the public interest.
Clinton had previously suffered from a conservative backlash in a losing 1980 Arkansas gubernatorial reelection campaign only to launch a comeback two years later. As he did then, Clinton responded to 1994 by moderating his more liberal policy stances. He talked about balanced budgets. He signed a welfare reform bill, taking that issue off the table in 1996. He ran to the right of congressional Democrats and the left of their Republican counterparts, a strategy known as “triangulation.”
“The era of big government is over,” Clinton said in his State of the Union address that year. “But we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.”
Obama course-corrected less than Clinton, and the economy recovered less fully by the presidential election than under Reagan. But having already beaten the media’s favorite Republican in John McCain in 2008, he was free to campaign aggressively against the rest of the party as extreme, shutdown-prone, and willing to push the country off the “fiscal cliff.” Then-Vice President Joe Biden helped, such as when he told a black audience the GOP ticket was going to “put y’all back in chains.”
Voters who stayed home in 2010, many of them young or nonwhite, turned out in sufficient numbers to deliver Obama a second term. Democrats then sustained losses in the next midterm election two years later, this time including their Senate majority.
Biden is already trying some of these tactics before the midterm elections. His “ultra-MAGA” jibes and criticisms of specific Republican leaders such as former President Donald Trump, Gov. Ron DeSantis, Gov. Greg Abbott, and Sen. Rick Scott suggest he would run against any new GOP majority. He has also started talking about the deficit and triangulating against liberals who would defund the police.
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Yet even before the midterm elections, only 35% of Democrats want Biden as their 2024 nominee to 56% who would prefer someone else, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll. That’s a higher level of intraparty opposition than Reagan, Clinton, or Obama ever faced. Biden is also older than all of them, including Reagan.
President George W. Bush didn’t suffer his midterm “thumpin'” until his second term. The Democratic majorities elected in 2006 effectively ended the Republican president’s legislative agenda and augured further GOP losses two years later, including in the presidential race. Economic conditions only worsened in the next two years, as did Bush’s numbers.
Whether that could be a more apt precedent for Biden than his own party’s past presidents or he has another comeback in him should Democrats lose this November remain to be seen.