The 2002 U.S. Midterm Elections

November 4, 2002

During the last two years the United States has been convulsed by a series of extraordinary events: the closest and arguably the most controversial presidential election in history; the first-ever shift in party control of the Senate between elections following the defection of Senator Jim Jeffords from the Republican party; the horrible terrorist attacks of September 11; the anthrax mailings that shut down Capitol Hill; a sudden reversal of economic fortunes that turned huge government surpluses into deficits; a stock market collapse; a series of shocking corporate scandals; and a looming preemptive war against Iraq.

Yet on the eve of the 2002 midterm elections, these dramatic events appear unlikely to alter the basic shape of American politics. For some years the U.S. has been a 50/50 nation, evenly divided between the Democratic and Republican parties at virtually every level of elective office. The Democrats control the Senate by a single seat. The Republicans cling to a six seat majority in the 435 member House of Representatives. Republican hold a slight advantage in the governorships but state legislatures are evenly divided between the two parties. And roughly equal numbers of American citizens identify themselves as Democrats or Republicans.

The two parties, which are more ideologically polarized today than is the norm in American politics, are engaged in a fierce struggle to win the marginal seats that will determine control of the major governmental institutions. For weeks President Bush has been campaigning virtually nonstop around the country in an effort to mobilize his political base and provide a boost to endangered Republican candidates. Fundraising efforts by the parties, candidates and interest groups have been frantic. Campaign ads are saturating television stations in the handful of targeted Senate and House races. Given the traditionally low voter turnout in midterm elections, ambitious get-out-the-vote efforts are being deployed by the parties and their allied interest groups.

These elections are occurring during an American war against terrorism and with an economy showing few signs of life. The political stakes couldn’t be higher. The President has put his personal popularity on the line. Why then is so little change anticipated in Tuesday’s elections? Is it still possible that one of the parties will emerge from the election with a politically significant victory, one that might shape politics and policymaking over the next two years?

Midterm elections traditionally produce a loss of seats in the House (and to a lesser extent in the Senate) for the President’s party, although the size of the loss varies greatly. The more seats the President’s party picks up in the previous presidential year election, the more it is likely to lose in the following midterm. The more unpopular the President, the larger the loss of seats in Congress. The worse the economy performs in the year of the midterm election, the greater the loss of seats by the President’s party. The more seats at risk for the party of the President (because of redistricting, the vulnerability of particular incumbents or the recruitment of strong challengers), the larger the potential loss at midterm. In the 1994 midterm elections, all of these factors combined to generate a political tsunami that swept Republicans into the majority in the House and Senate and led to major gains in state elections.

No such uniformity of national forces exists in 2002. President Bush’s anemic victory in 2000 (he actually lost the popular vote) produced losses, not gains, for his party in the House and Senate. After 9/11, the President has enjoyed high levels of popularity. His approval rating has declined substantially from its peak last fall, but it remains at a robust 60 percent. The economy has slowed and public perceptions of its health have diminished, but we are not in the midst of a full-blown recession. Moreover, there is little apparent anger at the President for the underperforming economy. And the number of competitive seats, particularly in the House, is at a historic low.

This means that neither party has been able to focus the election on a single compelling issue or concern, and in turn reap the political benefit. Americans are concerned about the economy but still anxious about terrorist threats. They are ambivalent about military action against Iraq but inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the President in the post 9/11 environment. They tend to side with the Democrats on a range of domestic issues such as social security, health benefits, education and the environment, but the significance of these party differences is diminished by skillful positioning on these issues by Republican candidates. In almost all of the small number of seriously contested House and Senate races, the competing candidates have both embraced the President’s campaign against terrorism and avoided bold (and politically risky) policies to deal with the economy.

All of these factors suggest that the midterm elections will result in relatively modest shifts in party strength in Congress. In the absence of a national political tide, a race-by-race analysis produces plausible outcomes in the Senate elections that range from a one-seat pickup for the Republicans to a two-seat gain for the Democrats. The comparable range in the House is from a three-seat Republican gain to a three-seat Democratic gain. Under these circumstances, the safest bet is that Democrats will retain control of the Senate while Republicans hold their majority in the House. This bottom-up perspective on the elections also suggests that the Republicans have a better chance of gaining a majority in the Senate than the Democrats do in the House.

But it would not take much in the way of a national political ripple (if not tide) to tip close races to one of the parties. If this happens, it will almost certainly result from concerns about the economy and work to the advantage of Democrats. In the days before the election, support for the President and for a war against Iraq trended downward while economic anxieties increased. Candidates in the most hotly-contested races are talking about the economy and domestic issues, not al Qaeda or Saddam Hussein. The looming war in Iraq has surprisingly mobilized more Democratic activists in opposition than Republican activists in support. This could produce an intensity and turnout advantage for the Democrats that makes the difference in some of the toss-up contests.

Such a national ripple would not transform the basic 50/50 structure of American politics, but it could elevate the Democrats to a very narrow majority in the House and increase the size of their majority in the Senate. This would be consistent with the likely outcome of the elections for governor, where Democrats could gain from three to seven seats and recapture a majority of statehouses. Democratic prospects are especially bright in the gubernatorial elections because Republicans have to defend many seats originally captured in the 1994 landslide but now vulnerable because many of their popular incumbents have been term-limited into retirement and states budgets are under severe fiscal stress.

Such Democratic gains would be widely interpreted as a political setback for President Bush. They would also lead to toughened opposition to his domestic agenda of more tax cuts, partial privatization of social security, the nomination of conservative judges, health reform, and efforts to reign in civil litigation. Even with the majority in both House and Senate, Democrats would be unable to enact their own policy agenda. But they would be in a position to mount a more effective opposition to the President and the Republicans. Having already authorized the use of military force against Iraq, a Democratic Congress would be unlikely to challenge the President on a military deployment to the Persian Gulf. However, it would be quick to pounce on him in the face of military setbacks or postwar complications.

Whatever the outcome of Tuesday’s elections (whose results may not be known for some time), American politics will continue to be intensely competitive, highly partisan and prone to gridlock on issues of major domestic contention. Those who imagined that the horrors of 9/11 would usher in a new era of American politics were sadly mistaken.