Larry Sabato’s analysis of the midterm elections is pretty much rock-solid from an historical perspective, but I think history is not particularly useful in this case. At least, I don’t think history that goes back before the Gingrich Revolution has a whole lot to teach us about what to expect in this year’s midterm elections. For starters, the last twenty years have given us a couple of highly anomalous midterm results. In 1998 and 2002, the president’s party vastly over-performed, mainly as a result of the Lewinsky scandal and the national reaction to the 9/11 attacks.
We’ve also seen major rebukes of the president’s party (in 1994, 2006, and 2010) that are more in line with historical norms.
Still, that’s a 60-40 split, which is much less convincing as a predictor than if we go back all the way to 1934, as Sabato does.
A much better way to do analysis is to just look at the current conditions and keep everything within its context. The Republicans underperformed in 1998 because there was a backlash over their decision to impeach Bill Clinton, and they over-performed in 2002 because the public trusted the Republicans more to seek revenge for 9/11. The state of the economy, the popularity of the president, and other factors that you can trace through history were not good predictors in those two midterms.
As Sabato points out, the 1986 results had little to do with the president’s popularity or the state of the economy, but were mainly a result of the Republicans having a lot of vulnerable members who had been swept into office in the 1980 landslide.
So, it’s easy to see why the Democrats are entering the election season with big disadvantages, but predicting big Republican wins because of history is not very convincing analysis. What I can say pretty confidently is that the Democrats are structurally blocked from making big gains. In the best conceivable circumstances, the Dems might be able to break even in the Senate and take back the House, but they would probably only control the House with the slimmest of majorities (one or two or three seats). That’s frustrating because we have to compete without the prospect of much of a reward. But it’s a different ball of wax than the doomsday scenario that Sabato predicts.
There really isn’t any reason to think that the people will prefer the Republicans in 2014. Just look at them. This isn’t 1994.