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History of Sixth-Year Elections Bodes Well for Democrats

by Robert S. McElvaine on Nov 5, 1998

Robert S. McElvaine

Unprecedented? Not quite. It last happened in 1822. The Democrats’ increase in House seats this year is the first time since James Monroe’s second term that the party of a president in his sixth year has gained seats in the House.

Off-year congressional elections at any point in an administration are almost always losing propositions for the party controlling the White House. Indeed, only twice in this century has a president’s party gained seats in the House in an off-year election, and both times were early in the administrations of the two President Roosevelts.

In 1902, a year after Theodore Roosevelt had ascended to the presidency following William McKinley’s assassination, Republicans increased their majority in the House by eleven seats. In 1934, the year after Franklin Roosevelt introduced his New Deal legislation, an electorate expanded by renewed hope increased the already large majority enjoyed by his Democrats in the House by nine seats.

The presidential party’s average loss in the previous 24 off-year elections of the twentieth century has been 32 seats. As poor as that average showing has been, the record is much worse in off-year elections taking place in the sixth year (or later, in the case of three-plus term President Franklin Roosevelt) of a presidency. This includes such debacles as the loss of 71 Democratic seats in 1938, FDR’s sixth year; 55 Democratic seats in 1942, Roosevelt’s tenth year; 49 Republican seats in Dwight Eisenhower’s sixth year, 1958; 47 Democratic seats in 1966, the sixth year of the Kennedy-Johnson Administration; and 48 Republican seats in 1974, the sixth year of the Nixon-Ford presidencies.

Overall, in the ten sixth or later years of a presidency this century, the party occupying the White House has lost an average of more than 36 House seats.

In the light of this record, the Democrats have done remarkably well this year. This raises the all-important questions of “Why?” and “What does it mean?”

Much analysis is likely to focus on voters’ unfavorable reactions to the Republicans’ pursuit of the impeachment of President Clinton. This has been a factor, but a different explanation seems to be more persuasive: Bill Clinton already had his sixth-year election debacle; it happened four years early, in 1994, and saved his party from facing such an electoral disaster this year.

In 1994, Democrats suffered the sort of off-year collapse that is normally reserved for sixth-year elections: the loss of 54 House seats to Newt Gingrich’s “revolutionaries.” In having a loss of sixth-year magnitude in his second year, President Clinton unintentionally put in place the foundation both for his own re-election and for his party’s avoidance of the standard sixth-year phenomenon.

The “Republican Revolution” of 1994 provided Clinton and the Democrats with a particularly easy target over the next four years. It also enabled the president to use temporary alliances with Republicans to add such popular items as welfare reform and a balanced budget to the economic vitality that had already been stimulated solely with Democratic votes in 1993.

A sixth-year election occurring in the second year of a presidency is not without precedent. It has happened twice before in this century, and the comparisons are instructive for the current situation. In 1922, with the nation experiencing a serious recession in Warren Harding’s second year, Republicans lost 75 seats. Four years later, with significantly fewer Republican incumbents available to be defeated and the economy in the midst of “Coolidge Prosperity,” the presidential party lost only ten seats.

In 1982, during Ronald Reagan’s second year, Americans were confronting their worst economic circumstances since the Great Depression. The Republicans dropped 26 seats. In Reagan’s sixth year, 1986, “morning in America” had seemingly been restored and the president’s party lost only five seats.

What does this mean? In the last half-century a large off-year loss by a party controlling the presidency for more than one term has always prefigured that party’s loss of the presidency two years later: the GOP losses in 1958 were followed by John Kennedy’s victory in 1960, the Democratic defeat in 1966 pointed towards the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, and the Republican collapse in 1974 was a harbinger of Jimmy Carter’s election two years later.

But the two times in the twentieth century that an administration has had the good luck to have its sixth-year disaster four years ahead of schedule, the party’s relatively good showing in the sixth-year election has been followed by its success in the next presidential election: Hoover in 1928 and Bush in 1988.

That precedent should be somewhat encouraging to Democrats as they look toward 2000, but the subsequent fates of Hoover and Bush may not be so comforting for the longer run.

Robert S. McElvaine, a writer for History News Service, is a professor of history at Millsaps College and the author of "The Great Depression."