Is a Democratic Wipeout Inevitable?

Even when the president’s party passes historic legislation, voters don’t seem to care.

A black-and-white triptych of half of the Capitol Building, half of Joe Biden's face, and an upside-down second half of the Capitol Building.
Drew Angerer / Getty; Samuel Corum / Bloomberg / Getty; The Atlantic

It’s common now for Democrats to argue that the agenda they are struggling to implement on Capitol Hill represents the party’s most ambitious since the “Great Society” Congress convened in 1965. That’s a reasonable assessment—but one that the party today should consider as much a warning as an inspiration. Under the relentless prodding of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Democratic-controlled House and Senate passed landmark legislation at a dizzying pace during that legendary 1965–66 legislative session.

Over those two years, the 89th Congress, finally completing a crusade started by Harry Truman almost two decades earlier, created the massive federal health-care programs of Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor. It put a capstone on the civil-rights revolution by approving the Voting Rights Act. It created the first large-scale system of federal aid to elementary and secondary schools and launched the Head Start program. It approved breakthrough legislation to combat pollution in the air and water. It created new Cabinet departments, a new agency to regulate automobile safety, and national endowments to fund the arts and humanities. It transformed the face of America with sweeping immigration legislation that finally undid the restrictive quotas that had virtually eliminated new arrivals since the early 1920s.

“It was one of the most productive and impressive Congresses that we’ve had,” says Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University and the author of The Fierce Urgency of Now, a book about Johnson’s push for his Great Society agenda. “Today, it’s unimaginable.”

Then, suddenly, when the work of the 89th Congress was finally finished, Democrats lost 47 seats in the House and three in the Senate during the midterm election of 1966. The Democrats’ bitter disappointment is a cautionary tale for their party descendants hoping to materially improve their odds in next year’s midterm contest by reaching agreement on the sweeping economic bills that have divided the party for months.

The lesson of history is that it is extremely difficult for presidents to translate legislative success in their first year into political success in the midterm elections of their second year. Those early achievements can boost presidents in their reelection bids, but in almost all cases they have not proved an antidote to the other midterm factors that cause the president’s party to lose ground in Congress.

Failing to pass their agenda could compound the Democrats’ problems by disillusioning their base and sending a message of dysfunction to swing voters. But completing the agenda isn’t likely to save them from the president’s party’s usual midterm losses unless voters also grow more optimistic about contemporary conditions in the country—particularly the fight against COVID-19 and the economic instability flowing from the persistent pandemic.

Democrats must “recognize that the potential upside of [their economic] bills [is] limited for next year, regardless of how virtuous they are in the policy,” says Simon Rosenberg, the president of NDN, a Democratic research and advocacy group. “Joe Biden was elected to do one thing, which was to defeat COVID. And when he was defeating it, his numbers went way up, and when COVID started defeating him, his numbers went way down. The key to him getting his numbers going back up is he has to defeat COVID and get credit for it. This has to be the central governing and political priority for the Biden administration.”

Sarah Longwell, the founder of the Republican Accountability Project, an organization of Republicans critical of former President Donald Trump, likewise says that in recent focus groups she’s conducted in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, few voters were following the legislative maneuvering over the Democrats’ huge agenda. “The thing that people care about right now is getting COVID under control, and all of the attending economic consequences relating to COVID,” Longwell told me. Not all analysts agree that the Democrats’ legislative agenda is unlikely to affect the midterms. Many campaign aides and operatives at the Democratic House and Senate campaign committees are eagerly anticipating that if the party reaches agreement on its big economic proposals, candidates next year can run on the trinity of creating jobs (through the infrastructure bill), bolstering families (mostly by extending the Child Tax Credit) and reducing health-care costs (through increasing federal subsidies under the Affordable Care Act and authorizing Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices). They are especially keen to highlight the lockstep Republican opposition to all of those measures.

The Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who was one of Biden’s lead polling advisers during the 2020 campaign, told me that many voters will view passing legislation that helps stabilize family budgets as an integral part of an effective COVID response. “I don’t think it’s a dichotomy,” she said. “We have got to deliver something to working- and middle-class families.” The emergence of the Delta variant, Lake said, surprised and dismayed many Americans who thought the country was on a steady path to recovery—one focus-group participant called it “a kick in the gut”—and now they worry that more unpleasant surprises will threaten their family’s health and finances. “For women in particular, we have to deliver something to their family, to their kitchen tables,” she said.

Yet, in the past, delivering on legislative promises has rarely been enough to prevent the president’s party from losing House seats in his first midterm election. (Senate results have varied more.) That’s been true for presidents in both parties.

Like the Great Society Congress, the 1913–14 Democratic Congress under President Woodrow Wilson was among the most productive ever; it created the federal income tax, the Federal Reserve Bank to stabilize the economy, and the Federal Trade Commission to monitor fraud in the marketplace. When it was over, Democrats lost 61 House seats in the 1914 election.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan pushed his signature tax cuts through Congress, arguably the most significant conservative policy achievement of the past half century; the next year, Republicans lost 26 House seats. Republicans lost 42 seats in 2018 after Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress passed their massive tax cut in 2017.

Bill Clinton lost 54 House seats in 1994 after passing a sweeping budget bill, a substantial crime bill, and the most significant gun-control legislation Congress has ever approved. The losses were even greater in 2010 after Barack Obama passed his stimulus plan, expansive financial-reform legislation, and, above all, the Affordable Care Act, extending health insurance to more of the uninsured than any other federal initiative had since Medicare and Medicaid. Despite, or perhaps because of, all that, Democrats lost 63 House seats in 2010, the biggest midterm loss for either party in more than 70 years.

Why hasn’t legislative success in year one produced more political success in year two? Sometimes the answer is that legislative victories for one party provoke an intense backlash from voters in the other. “It stimulates your opponents, and it could very well cost you because a lot of people don’t like what you do,” Zelizer says.

That certainly seemed the case in 2010, when the backlash to the ACA helped ignite the conservative Tea Party movement that powered the GOP gains; and in 1994, when a backlash from gun owners helped doom Democrats in southern and rural seats; and in 2018, when many more voters opposed than approved of Trump’s tax cut, according to surveys. (The failed GOP attempt to repeal Obama’s health-care law in Trump’s first year was also unpopular.) But presidents have suffered midterm losses even after advancing popular ideas: A majority of Americans, for instance, supported Reagan’s 1981 tax cut, and lopsided majorities backed the creation of Medicare in 1965, polls at the time showed.

A more common problem is that whether or not new programs are popular in theory, in practice, their benefits are rarely fully felt by voters as soon as the first midterm. (That dynamic was a particular problem for Democrats with the Affordable Care Act in 2010.) Another common issue is that no matter how popular a new program might be, opponents can usually pull out one element of it that strikes many voters as illogical or wasteful. A prime example of homing in on a seeming weak link was evident in 1994, when Republicans highlighted a “midnight basketball” program for young people to portray Clinton’s crime bill—which many liberals viewed as too punitive because it showered money on police and prisons—as permissive and wasteful.

“Democrats point to polls and say everybody wants these bills, but as soon as it passes, Republicans dig up midnight basketball and run on those sorts of things,” the Republican pollster Glen Bolger says. “And I know that this may shock you, but there is usually waste in these bills—and stupid stuff, too.”

The clearest modern exception to this pattern of first-year legislative gains and second-year electoral losses occurred in 1934, when Democrats gained nine House seats after the Democratic Congress frenetically approved the initial iteration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Republicans also gained eight House seats in 2002, after President George W. Bush passed his tax-cut and education-reform bills over the previous two years.

Those might be the exceptions, though, that illuminate a larger rule. Few in either party believe that the GOP gained in 2002 because of Bush’s legislation; what lifted Republicans was the public sense that he had responded effectively to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Even in 1934, though the Depression still exacted a terrible price, unemployment was lower and economic growth much higher than they had been when FDR took office.

No single cause explains all of these results, positive and negative, for the president’s party. But from these cases, the clearest rule might be that midterm elections turn less on assessments of legislation that may eventually affect people’s lives than on verdicts about the country’s condition in the here and now. Medicare and Medicaid didn’t cause the Democratic losses in 1966, but they weren’t enough to overcome discontent over inflation, urban turmoil after the Watts Riots of 1965, and Vietnam. Reagan’s tax cuts didn’t trigger the GOP losses in 1982, but they weren’t enough to overcome discontent over high interest rates and double-digit unemployment. An old political adage holds that presidential elections are always about the future; midterms seem to be more about today. As Bolger put it to me, voters “step outside and feel how the weather is, and if I feel uncomfortable with it, I take it out on the incumbent party.”

Maybe the most remarkable proof that current conditions outweigh legislative achievements in midterm elections is a data point that the Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz calculated for me from the University of Michigan’s National Election Studies covering the 1964 and 1966 elections. According to Abramowitz’s analysis of the results, those surveys found that even after Democrats created Medicare, the party’s share of the vote among seniors in House elections fell slightly from 1964 to ’66, giving the GOP a slight majority among them.

What does all of this mean for Democrats now?

Longwell said her focus groups with Democratic-leaning voters in Pennsylvania and independents in Wisconsin signal that Democrats should expect very limited benefits even if they pass the immense economic agenda now stalled amid resistance from Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

“Biden’s theory of the case seems to be: If you can take these big swings and push a lot of money at people, they will reward you by voting for you. And I do not think that is correct,” Longwell said. “As best I can tell, not only do these voters not have a strong sense it’s benefiting them; they have a much stronger sense it’s benefiting people they don’t think it should be.”

However popular individual elements of the Democratic plan might be, Zelizer says, the 1966 precedent offers a blueprint for how Republicans can neutralize them, at least while voters have not yet fully felt their effects. The attack message back then, he says, “wasn’t specific to the programs. It was about ‘Skyrocketing prices are on the way; spending is out of control,’ and that is the trap Biden is potentially falling into.” (A political action committee associated with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is already launching ads targeting the cumulative cost of the Democratic program.)

Lake, like officials at the Democratic campaign committees, is more optimistic that even if voters haven’t fully benefited from any programs Democrats might create, the party can point to them as evidence that it is attempting to alleviate voters’ COVID and economic strains in a way Republicans are not. “People don’t blame us for the economy, but they will blame us for doing nothing about it, particularly when we are in the majority,” she said. “When we get things done, we lift up a very vivid contrast and we pull out of this space we’re in right now, where voters are thinking, A pox on both your houses—you both are fighting; you both don’t pass anything. I don’t see how we get a contrast with Republicans if we don’t get something passed.”

Where Lake converges the most with Longwell, Rosenberg, and other like-minded analysts is in believing that the surest way for Biden to improve his standing—and thus for congressional Democrats to improve their odds in 2022—is to wrap up the contentious wrangling and reach a deal on the economic plan as soon as possible. Longwell similarly said that although “Biden’s problems are fixable,” voters are impatient for faster progress against COVID-19, even if that means more mandates or other tough measures for the unvaccinated. “It is much riskier for him to do less and let COVID persist as a problem, rather than looking like he is taking charge,” she said.

The biggest midterm losses have typically come after elections (like those in 1912, 1964, and 2008) in which the majority party secured significant gains—forcing it to defend seats deep in the other party’s territory. House Democrats already surrendered in 2020 many of the most Republican-leaning seats they had captured two years before. “You always have to view midterms in the context of what happened in the previous presidential election,” Abramowitz said.

Still, the pattern of first-term midterm losses for the president’s party is so entrenched that escaping it will be difficult for Democrats—even with fewer inherently vulnerable House incumbents, and even if Biden can notch more headway against the virus. And yet that gloomy prospect, paradoxically, might help the party break the congressional stalemate over its economic plan. Bolger noted that the near certainty of a disappointing midterm—whether a president achieves much legislatively or not, and whether that agenda is popular or not—should serve as a source of liberation for the party controlling Washington. “The counterargument is you might as well pass the stuff you want anyway,” he said. “Because the odds are, in the first midterm, if you are the party in power, you are going to pay a price no matter what you do.”