Analysis: What History Tells Us About Obama’s Second Term

Susan Walsh/AP

In my line of work, you learn to look for historical patterns, but not to fall prisoner to them. When historical patterns exist, the underlying causes should be carefully considered; when potential exceptions develop, those should be considered as well. Is there a reason why this time is different?

We know that second presidential terms usually do not turn out well. Scandals, unpopular wars, and economic downturns are among the misfortunes that have plagued second-term presidents. In the second-term, midterm election—the so-called “six-year-itch” election—the party holding the White House has lost a significant number of seats in the House, Senate, or both, to the tune of five of six times since World War II. In the House, the average loss has been 29 seats and in the Senate, six seats. The lone exception was 1998, when Republicans suffered a backlash against their efforts to impeach and remove President Clinton from office, breaking the pattern with a five-seat GOP loss in the House and a wash in the Senate.

We also know that when a party has held the White House for two consecutive terms, that party has then lost the presidency five of six times in post-World War II history—that exception being 1988, when, after eight years of President Reagan in office, his vice president, George H.W. Bush, defeated former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Much of that outlier result was due to the residual popularity of Reagan rather than Bush being a strong candidate and Dukakis being a weak one. It was most likely a combination of the factors.

The reasons the party in the White House has a tough time both six and eight years into their run are closely related. When a president is elected, he is full of energy and new ideas. There is an excitement surrounding the election of a new commander in chief in the first couple of years and a considerable amount of momentum. In the third and fourth years, all of those favorables are harnessed in reelecting the president. In their fifth and sixth years, presidencies tend to run out of gas and new ideas, and their novelty has worn off. The public begins to gradually and increasingly grow weary, resulting in bad six-year itches and usually unsuccessful efforts to transfer possession of the White House to the vice president or some other member of the party.

It’s far too early to make a judgment about the 2014 midterm election, whether it will be another six-year-itch debacle for, in this case, the Democrats, let alone what the circumstances will be in 2015 and 2016. How the U.S. economy is faring, the existence or absence of significant scandals in an administration, and whether the administration has made progress on its major issues are obviously significant potential factors.

Democrats go into 2014 with a disproportionate level of exposure in the Senate: 21 of their seats are at play, versus 14 GOP-held seats, thanks to the fact that 2008 was a big success for their party. Democrats scored a net gain of eight seats that year, which was the last time this particular group of seats faced the voters. So at least in the Senate, there is one reason why the pattern might hold up yet again in 2014.

In the House, not so much. Democrats picked up only eight seats last year. The lack of a big gain in one election means that there won’t be a lot of overly exposed freshmen in the next election. Additionally, between strong Democratic years in 2006 and 2008 and a huge year for the GOP in 2010, the House has sorted itself out pretty well. In last year’s general election, President Obama won in 96 percent of districts whose seats were held by Democrats, while Mitt Romney carried 94 percent of districts held by Republicans. Not a lot of fish out of water here: This is a result of both effective redistricting efforts by the dominant party in each state and the natural “birds of a feather flock together” phenomenon—the increasing tendency for people to want to live and associate with like-minded people. Concentration of these similarly minded people results in an intensification of their views, which in turn has resulted in there being fewer swing districts nationwide. There is a strong level of inertia in the House, making it difficult for either side to gain or lose significant numbers of seats, thus providing a potentially significant exception to the usual historical pattern on that side of Capitol Hill.

But the remaining factor is whether Republicans will address their own challenges, increasing their chances of being able to take advantage of 2014 and 2016 opportunities, or if they will stay on their current course. Given the situation in the House, Republicans—by maintaining the status quo, making no significant changes in their party or campaign strategies, tactics, and technologies—are still pretty likely to keep control of the chamber through the rest of this decade. The nature of districts insulates the GOP from the demographic forces working strongly against them in statewide and national races.

But in those races, the challenge that Republicans are facing with moderate, minority, younger, and women voters are very real. Will the Republicans nominate candidates in those races who can make the transition from their often fairly monolithic congressional districts or from homogeneous party bases as they step up to the bigger leagues? That is a very good question.

This article appeared in the Tuesday, March 12, 2013 edition of National Journal Daily.

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