The Economy, Stupid: Will Other Issues Matter in the Midterm Elections?
By Andrew Gelman, Professor of Statistics and Political Science at Columbia University, and Christopher Wlezien, Hogg Professor of Government, the University of Texas at Austin
In a Gallup poll taken in July 2022, 35% of Americans listed the economy as one of the most important problems facing the country today—a percentage that is neither high nor low from a historical perspective. What does this portend for the 2022 midterm elections? The quick answer is that the economy is typically decisive for presidential elections, but midterm elections have traditionally been better described as the swinging of the pendulum, with the voters moving to moderate the party in power.
It has long been understood that good economic performance benefits the incumbent party and there’s a long history of presidents trying to time the business cycle to align with election years. Edward Tufte was among the first to seriously engage this possibility in his 1978 book, “Political Control of the Economy,” and other social scientists have taken up the gauntlet over the years. Without commenting on the wisdom of these policies, we merely note that even as presidents may try hard to set up favorable economic conditions for reelection, they do not always succeed. There are a variety of reasons for this: government is only part of the economic engine, the governing party does not control it all, and getting the timing right is an imperfect science.
Presidential Influence on Midterms
In the 1970s and 1980s, Douglas Hibbs, Steven Rosenstone, James Campbell, and others established the statistical pattern that recent economic performance predicts presidential elections, and this is consistent with our general understanding of voters and their motivations. Economics is only part of the referendum judgment in presidential elections; consider that incumbents tend to do well even when economic conditions are not ideal. The factors that lead incumbent party candidates to do well in presidential elections also influence Congressional elections in those years via “coattails.”
So, the economy matters in presidential elections. Yet this is less true in midterm elections. There, voters tend to balance the president, voting for and electing candidates of candidates of the “out-party.” This now is conventional wisdom and the variation in the tendency only reflects the public approval of the president. We are more (or less) likely to elect members of the other party, the less (or more) we approve of the president. The economy matters for approval, thus it matters in midterm elections. But it matters to a lesser degree than in presidential elections, and other things matter, including policy itself.
The Economy Matters, but Midterms Are a Presidential Referenda
Whatever the specific causes, it is rare for voters to not punish the president at midterm. The exceptions to midterm loss are 1998, after impeachment proceedings against popular Bill Clinton were initiated, and again in 2002, when the even more popular George W. Bush continued to benefit from the 9/11 rally effect. Gains in these years were slight. It has not happened since and to find another case of midterm gain one has to go all the way back to Franklin Roosevelt’s first midterm in 1934. This is consistent with voters seeing the president as directing the ship of state, with Congressional voting providing a way to make smaller adjustments to the course. Democrats currently control two of the three branches of government. It may be natural for some voters to swing Republican in the midterms, particularly given Joe Biden’s approval numbers, which have been hovering in the low-40s.
Elections are not just referenda on the incumbent; the alternative also matters. This may seem obvious in presidential election years, but it is true in midterms, as well. Consider that Republican attempts to impeach Bill Clinton may have framed the 1998 election as a choice, rather than a “balancing” referendum, contributing to the (slight) Democratic gains in that year. We may see something similar in 2022, encouraged in part by the Supreme Court decision on abortion, among other rulings. Given that the court now is dominated by Republican appointees, some swing voters will want to maintain Democratic control of Congress as a way to check Republicans’ judicial power and future appointments to the courts. The choice in the midterms also may be accentuated by the re-emergence of Donald Trump in the wake of the FBI raid of Mar-a-Lago.
Change in Congress’s party control results from contests in particular districts and states. These may matter less as national forces have increased in importance in recent years, but voters’ choices in those contests still matter when they go to the polls. In the current election cycle, there has been an increase in the retirements of Democratic incumbents as would be expected in a midterm with a Democratic president, but some of the candidates Republicans are putting up may not be best positioned to win. This is particularly true in the Senate, where candidates and campaigns matter more.
If you enjoyed this article, please make sure to like, comment, and share below. You can also read more from our Midterms 2022 series here.