2022 midterms

Could Democrats Defy History and Keep Congress in 2022?

Don’t rule out the possibility that the Democratic trifecta could persist for another two years. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

After a disappointing 2020 House election cycle, and some vacancies that showed how perilously thin Nancy Pelosi’s majority has become, it’s now conventional wisdom that Republicans are favored to retake the House in 2022. There are strong historical precedents for that judgement; the average number of House seats lost by the president’s party in midterms dating back to World War II is 27. And thanks to their grip of state legislative chambers (the area where Democrats really fell short in 2020), Republicans hold an advantage in redistricting that should make flipping the House even easier.

But it’s worth remembering that there have been two post–Great Depression midterm elections, both of them fairly recent, in which the president’s party shockingly gained House seats. In 1998, in what was partly a public reaction to Republican plans to impeach a president (Bill Clinton) whose job performance ratings were very high, the GOP lost five net House seats, even though they won the national House popular vote by 1.1 percent. The unexpected setback led to the quick resignation of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, but didn’t keep vengeful House Republicans from impeaching Clinton anyway.

Just four years later, it happened again, as Republicans gained eight net House seats in the first national election after 9/11. This time the aberration was usually explained as attributable to the attacks that temporarily lifted George W. Bush from a Texas conservative with meh approval ratings to a global colossus, and that accentuated voter concerns about national security issues, an area in which the GOP was considered stronger at the time.

So could 2022 be like 1998 or 2002? The case that it could happen was made on Wednesday by Louis Jacobson after a review of past midterms: “The two recent examples of a president’s party gaining House seats in a midterm followed unusual occurrences — the GOP-led impeachment of Clinton before the 1998 midterms and the 9/11 attacks before the 2002 midterms — and the easing of the coronavirus pandemic and an economic recovery could theoretically boost Biden in a similar way in 2022.”

You could add Donald Trump’s determination to keep himself in the news and in charge of his party as another thing that could make 2022 something other than the usual “referendum on the sitting president and his party.” Biden’s agenda, moreover, is unusually popular, so far at least. Another factor Jacobson discusses is the current level of partisan polarization (arguably beginning in the mid-1990s), which makes the kind of sizable swings in public opinion that reinforce midterm “backlash” against the president’s party less powerful.

On the other hand, you cannot become so focused on the 1998 and 2002 precedents that you forget the last four midterms from 2006 through 2018, in which the president’s party suffered net losses of 32, 63, 13 and, 40 House seats. These occurred in periods of partisan polarization, too. They illustrated, moreover, that even if public opinion is stable, partisan differences in voter enthusiasm and turnout can move a lot of seats. And even if circumstances reduce the expected GOP advantage, Republicans still have redistricting working in their favor (barring the unlikely enactment of federal legislation restraining partisan gerrymandering).

To be clear, Democrats will have a much easier time hanging onto the Senate in 2022, considering the landscape of midterm elections in that chamber: Republicans are defending 20 seats, with three of them open (so far). That matters, given the Senate’s exclusive power to confirm presidential appointments to the judiciary and key executive branch posts. But enacting actual legislation these days requires a trifecta, and even one as narrowly built as today’s is a far cry from divided government.

Could Democrats Defy History and Keep Congress in 2022?