m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

March 1986

The Curse of the Six-Year Itch

In the coming midterm elections a venerable political pattern threatens Republican control of the Senate

by Norman J. Ornstein

It is hard to get anybody but the politically besotted excited over midterm elections. But this year's raise interest above the average: party control of the Senate is at stake, and so might be the Republican bid to become the new governing party. The Republican majority in the Senate, captured in 1980 for the first time in a quarter century, and held by the fingernails since, is at present a bare three seats. If the Democrats gain four (ties are broken by the Republican Vice-President), they take charge--and with it take the top leadership positions and all the committee and subcommittee chairmanships, and control the agenda.

Granted, a change from the Republican Bob Packwood to the Democrat Lloyd Bentsen as chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee is not exactly a sharp veer to the left; nor is a shift from Pete Domenici to Lawton Chiles on the Budget Committee; nor, for that matter, from Barry Goldwater to Sam Nunn on Armed Services. But imagine what would happen to the confirmation prospects of a Reagan nominee to the Supreme Court in a Judiciary Committee chaired by the Delaware neo-liberal Joe Biden instead of the South Carolina conservative Strom Thurmond, or to a family-planning funding proposal in a Labor and Human Resources Committee chaired by the redoubtable Ted Kennedy instead of by the New Right leader Orrin Hatch, of Utah, and you can see why control of the Senate matters. And not just to Republican senators but to Ronald Reagan, who has had his differences with Senate Republicans but who has at least been able to count on them to promote his agenda and respond to his timing. For Reagan, Republican control of the Senate may mean the difference between a placid and a miserable final two years.

The 1986 elections will involve nearly twice as many Republican seats as Democratic ones. With twenty-two seats up, Republicans are more vulnerable to losses--and more of their seats are vulnerable to begin with. Sixteen of the twenty-two Republican seats are held by freshmen, first elected in the Reagan landslide of 1980, many by extremely narrow margins. (Indeed, half the Republicans who won in 1980 did so with 52.1 percent of the vote or less.) There are only twelve Democrats up. All, of course, withstood the Reagan tidal wave; by and large, they start out in stronger positions.

For all practical purposes each side has roughly the same number of safe seats--seats in which a loss would be a major upset. For the Republicans these include those of Quayle, of Indiana; Packwood, of Oregon; Grassley, of Iowa; Rudman, of New Hampshire; Garn, of Utah; Dole, of Kansas; and Murkowski, of Alaska. For the Democrats they include those of Bumpers, of Arkansas; Dixon, of Illinois; Ford, of Kentucky; Glenn, of Ohio; Hollings, of South Carolina; Inouye, of Hawaii; and Dodd, of Connecticut. This leaves fifteen Republican and five Democratic seats with varying degrees of vulnerability. The Democrats are concerned about two open seats (Missouri and Louisiana) and the seats of two incumbents (Cranston, of California, and Leahy, of Vermont), along with Gary Hart's Colorado seat. Republican worries include the open seats in Maryland, North Carolina, and Nevada, along with the seats of a number of freshman incumbents, such as Abdnor, of South Dakota; Hawkins, of Florida; Nickles, of Oklahoma; Symms, of Idaho; and Mattingly, of Georgia. Republican nervousness is compounded by the fact that 1986 is a second-term off year election--one susceptible to a phenomenon that Kevin Phillips has called the "six year itch."




For decades political analysts have been intrigued by an ironclad pattern in American politics: the President's party loses seats in the off-year election that follows his White House triumph--a phenomenon that has occurred in every off-year election save one since the Civil War. Since the Second World War, off-year losses for the President's party in the House have averaged fifteen seats in the second year and forty-eight in the sixth; in the Senate the average losses are zero in the second year and seven in the sixth.

The losses have occurred whenever a party has held the White House for two terms, even when the President has changed. (For example, the Democrats suffered deep losses in 1966, six years into the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies, and Republicans suffered badly in 1974, the sixth year of their hold on the White House.) There is no need to go back much further for a purer analogy to the present situation. The last time that a President served through the sixth year of two terms was in 1958, with Dwight Eisenhower. An elderly, popular, two-term Republican President who had won a landslide re-election victory two years earlier saw his party's hopes for majority status disappear. Battered by a farm crisis and a deep recession, the Republicans lost forty-seven seats in the House of Representatives and a full fifteen in the Senate (including two newly created ones for Alaska), an outcome that set the Republicans back for more than two decades and gave the Democrats a boost that carried them, in Congress at least, for the same period.

This sixth-year massacre stems from a variety of mundane causes. Some of them have to do with candidate-recruitment patterns. The party that wins the presidency usually has had good fortune overall in that year, with topflight, well-financed candidates for Congress attracted by the momentum of their party. But its potential-candidate pool is thereby lowered for the next midterm election. The out party usually experiences the reverse pattern, getting better candidates in the later off year. Economic cycles matter too: Presidents and Federal Reserve Boards pump up the economy in the presidential-election year, and we pay the price, with a downturn or a recession in the off year. With a two term President the cycle often oscillates more in the second term, leading to a more severe downturn in the sixth year--as happened in 1958.

The nature of the turnout is also important. A presidential contest brings to the polls a lot of occasional voters, attracted by the excitement of the race for the White House. By and large they vote for the winner and help members of his party. But in an off year the occasional voters don't turn out, leaving the polls to the partisans and other regular voters; the disgruntled, out-party types are more likely to vote and register their protest than the complacent or disillusioned members of the President's party.

Also, if the President's party does well in the presidential year, it has more seats to protect, and potentially to lose, the next time around. And many of these seats are held by newcomers who won, or veterans who scraped by, largely as a result of the presidential surge. Senators, of course, have six-year terms, with one third of the hundred in the chamber up every two years. The group on the chopping block in the sixth year is the one that got elected when the two-term President first swept in--and that usually means a whole lot of the President's colleagues, and few members of the opposition.

Still, these general considerations are balanced for the Republicans by factors peculiar to 1986. For one, the Republicans as a party are stronger today than they were in 1958. The Gallup Poll back then showed the Democratic Party capturing the allegiance of 47 percent of the electorate, and only 31 percent supporting the Republican Party. The comparable numbers in 1985 were 37 percent Democratic and 34 percent Republican. For another thing, the incumbents in both the House and the Senate are unusually well equipped with resources and sophistication to separate themselves out from national trends and blame directed at the White House. Republicans in the House have relatively few open seats (ones in which no incumbent is running for re-election and which therefore offer the best opportunities for party turnover) to defend. Only thirty-five or so of the 435 House seats so far have opened or appear likely to, and not many look vulnerable to a party shift. It is a rare election in recent years in which 90 percent or more of the House incumbents have not won re-election (the figure was over 95 percent in 1984). Having entrenched incumbents reduces the potential losses that the Republicans fear.

Republicans are nevertheless haunted by the memory of 1958. Things looked pretty good for them too, less than a year before that election--then the recession hit. Expectably, congressional Republicans see the economy as the overriding issue. For Senate Republicans the economy means the deficit. They have shown a veritable obsession with it, first pushing a bold and dramatic deficit-reduction plan last summer, only to have it rejected by the President, and then taking up the Gramm-Rudman proposal to lock in severe budget cuts and create the incentive for a tax increase. To Senate Republicans the deficit is the key to the economy. As one Senate Republican put it recently, "If the financial community and the Fed believe that we can't do the job, they'll begin to take steps to protect themselves and the economy against inflation. That means interest rates going up and the money supply tightening. And it'll happen at the worst possible time."




More than the Senate may be at stake in this midterm election. Both parties are jockeying for long-term majority status. In order to achieve this, a political party must capture the allegiance of numbers of voters who will support the party down the ticket, not just at the presidential level. However, notwithstanding the Republicans' ballyhooed Operation Open Door to convert registered Democrats to Republicans, very few people will spurn lifelong partisan affiliations and switch squarely to the other side. Realignment rests on replacement: getting new voters, primarily young ones, who haven't yet formed firm political allegiances, to join your cause. They will eventually restructure the electorate as they replace older voters attached to the other party.

All the research done on the dramatic Democratic realignment of the 1930s shows that the key was young voters, coming of age as the Depression hit, influenced deeply by the contrast between Hoover and Roosevelt. Back then most lifelong Republicans stayed Republican--and, from the thirties through the Second World War, continued to despise Roosevelt. Meanwhile those young voters became lifelong Democrats. Voters born in the teens and twenties--who were teenagers and young adults as the Depression hit, and who are in their sixties and seventies now--are still strongly Democratic in their identification (as are those born a bit later who came of age around the Second World War). The oldest segment of today's population, those who came of age during the golden years for the Republicans (the Roaring Twenties), remain staunchly Republican today.

Young voters, then, are the prize. And young voters in the past couple of elections, according to Gallup, are strikingly more Republican than their predecessors. The pattern is especially pronounced among those under thirty who have come of age during the Reagan era and who saw a vivid contrast between Reagan and Carter. Public Opinion magazine has compared eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds in 1985 with their counterparts in 1952; in nearly every region of the country today's young people are much more Republican. These young voters supported Reagan handsomely in 1980, and again in 1984. But they are not yet firmly entrenched in the Republican Party. Young people are considerably less anchored to parties than their parents. It takes a while--several elections--to convert patterns into enduring habits. Many Republicans believe that if they can hold the young voters in 1986, they will have built a substantial and long-lasting base. In contrast, if they lose them in 1986, a great opportunity--especially given the size of the generation--will have been lost.

The Republican Party's position now is reinforced by its image as a winner, as the party on the move; visit any college campus these days, and contrast the positive, upbeat recruiting posters of the college Republicans with the defensive ads (if there are any ads at all) of the college Democrats. A good Republican year in 1986--defined, say, as holding on to the Senate--will reinforce that image; a bad year could bury it.


Copyright © 1986, Norman J. Ornstein. All rights reserved.
"The Curse of the Six-Year Itch";
The Atlantic Monthly, March, 1986, issue. Volume 257, Number 3 (pages 22-28).

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture