CMC Magazine banner

The six-year curse

Fall 2014

CMC Magazine sat down with Crown Professor of Government and George R. Roberts Fellow Andrew Busch to discuss the midterm elections and beyond. Busch, who is director of the Rose Institute of State and Local Government, has authored or co-authored thirteen books on American politics, including After Hope and Change: The 2012 Elections and American Politics (2013, co-written with James W. Ceaser and Jack Pitney); Epic Journey: The 2008 Elections and American Politics, revised post-midterm election version (2011) and Horses in Midstream: U.S. Midterm Elections and Their Consequences (1999) along with more than thirty articles and chapters.

CMC: How do you think the midterms could impact the next Presidential election?

Busch: It used to be that you could tell more about what was going to happen in presidential elections from what happened in the midterm elections, but in recent years, there hasn’t been as clear an association. In 1994 and in 2010, for example, there was huge turnover in Congress. The President’s opposition gained a large number of seats, took over the House in both cases, the Senate in one case, and still lost the next presidential election. Then, you had cases like 2006 when the president’s opposition party gained control of Congress and did win the next presidential election.

I wouldn’t draw too much from these midterms in terms of impact on the next general presidential election. Where I think it could have a bigger impact would be on the nomination races because the midterms are going to produce an interpretation or competing interpretations of voter behavior. And depending on which interpretations seem the most viable, parties might be driven one way or another in the nomination races.

CMC: What are some of the advantages and disadvantages you see for both Democrats and Republicans going into midterms?

Busch: Certainly in the midterms, the advantage that the Republicans have is that the map is on their side. There are a fair number of Senate seats that are Democratic seats in basically Republican-leaning states, or states that ought to be competitive. This is part of what sometimes people call the “six-year itch” or “six-year curse” in midterm elections. When a president gets reelected, his second midterm in the Senate is often a real struggle. You have Senate candidates who barely won in tough states because the president pulled them through. Six years later they have to run for reelection when the president’s not on the ballot anymore. And even if he were, it might not help them because his popularity isn’t what it was six years earlier.

There is also President Obama’s unpopularity and the fact that turnout in midterm election years tends to be considerably lower than in presidential election years. That doesn’t always hurt Democrats, but in this case it probably will because the people who drop off are more likely to be supporters of Obama than opponents of him. The demographic groups that tend to drop off the most are younger voters and sometimes minority voters, who can get mobilized for presidential elections but it’s a lot harder to get them out in midterm years.

One of the disadvantages that Republicans are facing is that Congress is also very unpopular, including the House. They haven’t been all that successful in presenting a coherent message about what they want to do. They have had a really hard time acting on an issue. You also have some dissension within the Republican ranks. In some of these primaries, where the Tea Party candidates have been trying to beat up on the more establishment Republicans, it has created divisions which will have to heal for the Republican party to be strong in the general election.

The Democrats have the advantage of money, at least right now. They also have a certain advantage in message. They pretty much stay on the same page and that’s helpful for them. The President is always the focal point. It is always harder for the opposition to get attention than for the President to get attention. If he wants to make a nationally televised speech on something, he’ll do it. It will be covered most of the time. If John Boehner wants to give a nationally televised speech he’s got to buy the time or no one’s going to play it. So the Democrats have a messaging advantage to some extent.

CMC: Do you see some changing demographic patterns overall in the electorate that favor either side in the elections coming up?

Busch: The one big trend that everyone talks about is the rise of the Latino vote, and that’s going to continue. Generally, that favors Democrats. Everyone focuses on the fact that the Republicans do so badly among those groups, and they do. Mitt Romney had less than 30% of the Latino vote in 2012. But what people sometimes forget is that Democrats need those majorities to win. If they aren’t getting 70-75% of the Latino vote and 90-95% of the African-American vote, they’re not winning, which puts them in a vulnerable position. That kind of overwhelming majority is very hard to maintain. So, in a sense, it’s a real problem for the Republicans, but it’s also a real problem for the Democrats.

When a president gets reelected, his second midterm in the Senate is often a real struggle. What happens is that you have Senate candidates who barely won in tough states because the president pulled them through, and then six years later they have to run for reelection….