US Congress - Capitol Building at Capitol Hill in Washington DC, United States in winter
U.S. Capitol Credit: iStock

Last week, the Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty asked House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer how he is feeling about the 2022 midterm election. After all, the president’s party almost always loses at least a few House seats and usually many more. Yet Hoyer insisted he is “optimistic.” He argued there are “a couple of exceptions” to the midterm rule, in particular, when “the country was facing deep economic downturns.” He also noted that Donald Trump won’t be on the ballot and the Republican Party is “deeply divided,” which could dampen Republican base turnout.

Meanwhile, analysts have pointed out that Republicans are poised for a takeover of the House. As CQ Roll Call’s Nathan Gonzales put it, “Republicans should disband if they don’t win back the House in 2022” because “Democrats have their narrowest majority in more than a generation, and Republicans have redistricting and history on their side in the midterm elections.”

But Hoyer’s optimism should not be treated as delusional or dishonest. History does show Democrats have a path forward.

At first blush, history paints a dire picture for Democrats. Since the end of Reconstruction, we have experienced 36 midterm elections, and the president’s party has lost House seats 33 times. Of those 33, only once did the president’s party lose less than five seats—and five is the magic number for Republicans in 2022.

And as I wrote earlier this spring, estimates of how many seats Republicans can create for themselves by gerrymandering range from zero to eight, with four a reasonable estimate. So, while gerrymandered districts probably won’t be enough to give Republicans the House on its own, a typical midterm shift of political winds would be.

Where hope lies for Democrats is in the exceptions to the midterm rule. However, Hoyer’s specific analysis is well off the mark; deep economic downturns are not good for the president’s party!

The lingering effects of the Great Recession pounded Barack Obama’s Democrats in the “Tea Party” 2010, giving Republicans 63 additional seats and control of the House. The 1982 recession on Ronald Reagan’s watch contributed to 26 lost Republican House seats.

The 1957-1958 recession was technically over by February. But it led to a decline in real disposable income; and that is an economic factor which, as The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson showed back in 2010, has a fairly strong correlation to midterm performance. Dwight Eisenhower’s Republicans lost 48 seats that year. And the recession of 1937-1938 was disastrous for FDR; at the tail end of that downturn, the Democrats lost 81 House seats. (Both Eisenhower and FDR were in their sixth year of office; presidents with relatively mild midterms in their second year of office are prone to more brutal midterms in their sixth year.)

1934, 1998 and 2002 are the only years when the president’s party gained seats. And the year which the president’s party lost less than five seats was 1962. What was the common thread in those years? Crisis.

1934’s midterm was the first after Roosevelt launched the New Deal. The Great Depression was far from over, but voters felt the economy was turning around and credited the president’s party.

1998 featured a manufactured impeachment crisis, as congressional Republicans authorized an impeachment inquiry into Bill Clinton one month before the election. The economy was booming, and voters thought Republicans had lost the plot. Democrats picked up five House seats.

In 2002, America was still shaken from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and voter appetite for militant responses boosted the popularity of President George W. Bush and the GOP. (Note for younger readers: during this point in American history, the Republican Party was considered the stronger party on national security issues.) Republicans picked up eight seats in the House and took back control of the Senate for good measure.

The 1962 midterm occurred one month after the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis (and real disposable income growth was respectable to boot.) President John F. Kennedy’s approval ratings, while always high, had begun to sag before the crisis, but received an 13-point boost afterwards. That helped limit Democratic House losses to just four.

What does that mean for 2022? Well, it so happens President Joe Biden has been managing a once-in-a-century pandemic. And so far, so good. Vaccinations are up. Infections are down. Schools are opening up. Jobless claims are down. The adage: shots in arms, checks in the mail, shovels in the ground. If successful crisis management is the only way Biden can keep the House under Democratic control, he’s on his way.

Of course, politics is rarely so simple. Biden could do such a good job ending the crisis, the public may have put the pandemic in its rearview mirror by November 2022 and have found something else to complain about. Or the pandemic may still linger. Vaccine skeptics may keep us from herd immunity. Variants may circulate. Inflation might be a real worry. And Biden may begin to shoulder more blame.

Governing in the middle of crisis is politically volatile. Take 1990. After Iraq invaded Kuwait during the summer, President George H.W. Bush sent troops to Saudi Arabia, boosting his job approval to 74 percent. Then gas prices rose, concerns about a protracted war grew, and his job approval dipped. (Bush’s decision to break his “No New Taxes” pledge in the summer of 1990 also left a mark.) By the midterm election, Bush’ job approval landed at 57 percent. Still, that’s much better than most presidents before their first midterm. In turn, Republican losses in the House were historically modest, only eight seats.

But if Joe Biden replicated Bush’s 1990 midterm performance, he’d still lose the House. In all four cases when the president’s party gained House seats or lost less than five, presidential job approval was above 60 percent (we don’t have poll numbers for 1934, but it’s a good bet FDR was in that range). And in today’s polarized America, whether any president can reach 60 percent job approval is an open question. No one has done it since Barack Obama, and that was only in his honeymoon period through early June 2009. Democrats can take heart in the 63 percent approval Biden just scored in the most recent Associated Press/NORC poll though his Real Clear Politics approval average is a more modest 54 percent.

Since 1978, five of our seven presidents had job approval below 50 percent by the time of their first midterm. Why is that? New presidents enter office brimming with high expectations, then get hit with the realities of governing. Overhyped ideas, imperfect compromises and unfulfilled promises tend to deflate the presidential party’s base and energize the opposition.

To avoid the usual midterm bloodbath, Democrats need to reverse the usual script, and remain unified while Republicans divide. As it stands, that’s what happening. After Democrats passed $1.9 trillion in pandemic relief, Republicans purged Rep. Liz Cheney for insufficient loyalty to Donald Trump. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell may insist that “one-hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration,” but Senator Shelley Moore Capito is trying to strike a bipartisan deal on infrastructure, and Senator Tim Scott sounds hopeful for a bipartisan deal on police reform. If Democrats can keep their focus on helping Americans, while Republicans squabble among themselves, 2022 won’t have the same political dynamics as most midterm years.

Gaming out what may happen on Election Day is not just an exercise for academics and bettors. Knowing how presidential parties have bucked the historic trend should inform Democratic strategy. Yes, Democrats should deliver policies that help people get through this crisis. But since crises don’t always cooperate, they also need to manage expectations so they don’t get held to an unrealistic standard.

One encouraging sign is that Biden has tended to lowball vaccine targets, making them each time. And he does remind people that we’re still in a crisis, helping to guard against complacency.

Yes, Democrats should feel free to use reconciliation to avoid having to toss away their agenda to get a few GOP votes. However, bipartisan bills have the advantage of not only being more enduring, but they widen fissures in the GOP. Anything that gets Josh Hawley barking at Susan Collins is its own reward.

Steny Hoyer may be wildly optimistic, but he didn’t get to be majority leader by being bad at math or delusional. Democrats are on the right path to make their own history and keep the House.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.