The 2014 Senate elections are not shaping up to be particularly favorable for the Democrats. While there are still scenarios where they could walk away breaking even, or even gaining a seat or two, those scenarios are pretty far-fetched. Current predictions vary somewhat, but seem to center around Republicans picking up somewhere between five and seven seats, with the overall range of possibilities a bit wider.
The nonpartisan explanations for this state of affairs have centered around three different factors: the president is unpopular, the president’s party always loses seats in midterm elections, and the Democrats overperformed in 2008, setting them up for a rough year in 2014 (you can see Bill Schneider making all three arguments here). In this article, I’ll briefly discuss all three explanations, and then add a fourth.
Very little needs to be said about the first factor: The relationship between presidential approval and electoral outcomes has been thoroughly explored, and I have little to add. Likewise, the tendency of the president’s party to fare poorly in midterm elections is so well-known as to require only an asterisk here: While the president’s party has lost House seats in all but two post-World War II midterm elections (1998 and 2002), it has gained or broken even in Senate seats in five (1962, 1970, 1982, 1998, and 2002). That’s somewhere between a third and a quarter of the postwar midterms, so our rule here is not really as “real” as it is for House elections.
Evaluating the third factor is a bit dicier. There are doubtless examples of elections where the president’s party is so overextended from earlier wins that losses became almost inevitable: The large Democratic gains in 1986 were certainly a function of the huge Republican gains in 1980. Likewise, in 1958 the Democrats were able to gain 13 seats — the most seats won by a party since universal direct election of Senators began in 1914 — because Republicans had gained two seats in 1952, 12 seats in 1946, and four seats in 1940.
But we also have countervailing examples — including two of fairly recent vintage. In 2012, Democrats managed to gain two seats, their gain of six seats in 2006 (on top of gaining four seats in 2000) notwithstanding. Republicans beat the odds when they captured six seats in 2010 (not counting Scott Brown’s special election win), despite the fact that Republicans hadn’t suffered a net
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