“The Second-Term Jinx:
By Darrell M. West,
common for the party controlling the presidency to have major problems in the
second term. This so-called jinx
afflicted Dwight Eisenhower (major seat losses), John Kennedy/Lyndon Johnson (
Democratic gains in the 2006
elections have transformed the political landscape and altered the future outlook for the Bush presidency. In this report, I examine the 2006 election
results. I compare the midterm losses to
past years, explain why all politics is not local, and
note that it is not always the economy stupid.
I conclude by discussing the ramifications of this campaign for Bush and
The Midterm Curse Is Real
Midterm elections present a risk for any American president. As shown below, the largest House midterm losses took place in 1938 and 1942 for Franklin Roosevelt, 1946 for Harry Truman,and 1996 for Bill Clinton. Over the last century, every in-party with the exception of Democrats in 1998 and Republicans in 2002 has lost seats in the midterm election.
While the last two midterms ran contrary to the historic norm, we now see that the 2006 elections represent a return to the general tendency of midterm losses for the party controlling the presidency. With the exception of 1994, the 2006 losses were the largest in the last 30 years and allowed Democrats to regain majority control of the House of Representatives.
House Midterm Seat Losses for In-Party
1938 -71 seats (
1942 -55 seats (
1946 -55 seats (Truman)
1950 -29 seats (Truman)
1954 -18 seats (Eisenhower)
1958 -48 seats (Eisenhower)
1962 -4 seats (Kennedy)
1966 -47 seats (Johnson)
1970 -12 seats (Nixon)
1974 -48 seats (Nixon)
1978 -12 seats (Carter)
1982 -26 seats (Reagan)
1986 -5 seats (Reagan)
1990 -8 seats (Bush I)
1994 -52 seats (
1998 +5 seats (
2002 +6 seats (Bush II)
2006 -33 seats (Bush II)
All Politics Are Not Local
This year’s election was difficult
for Republicans because Democrats successfully nationalized the campaign. Unlike many years, which focus on local concerns,
federal grants and contracts brought back to the state, and the personal
likeability of individual candidates, the 2006 elections centered on big
national issues such as
Although Republicans sought to keep
their distance from the national GOP and barely acknowledged their party ties
in campaign commercials, Democrats ran openly against
This strategy of nationalization allowed Democrats to disprove Tip O’Neill’s famous dictum that “all politics is local”. When there are big issues on the national agenda, it is hard for the governing party to localize campaigns.
It’s Not the Economy Stupid
Most American elections tend to
focus on domestic economic concerns. As
If the 2006 elections had centered on the domestic economy, Republicans would have been in good shape. At 2.5 percent, inflation was at historic lows. Unemployment hovered around 4.5 percent, far lower than the double-digit rates of 1980. Gross Domestic Product was positive. It started the year around four percent, then dropped to around two percent in the third quarter. Personal income numbers showed real gains in earning power after taxes and inflation.
for Democrats, the
Money Does Not Buy Elections
Republicans held a fundraising advantage over Democrats in the 2006 elections. According to national figures from the Federal Election Commission, Republicans raised $435 million compared to $333 million for Democrats. This meant that the GOP held a 23 percent fundraising advantage over their Democratic counterparts.
This compares to the $557 to $452 million advantage that Republicans held in 2004 and the $518 to 332 million lead that the GOP maintained over Democrats in 2002.
Sometimes, observers claim that money buys elections, but Democratic gains in 2006 demonstrate that money is not everything. If the national political climate is hostile to the in-party, its fundraising advantages do not allow it to purchase victories. Money is necessary to get out the vote and communicate with voters. But it does not trump message when voters feel the country is headed in the wrong direction.
Ramifications for the Bush Presidency
Democratic control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1994 represents the beginning of the end of the Bush Presidency. For most of his presidency, Bush has had Republican majorities in the House and Senate.
This has allowed him to avoid
hearings, scandal investigations, and public accountability for policy
decisions. Compared to the
Every president in his second term moves into “lame-duck” status that compromises his ability to get things done. With his low job approval rating, Bush has become one of the least popular presidents in the post-World War II era.
The most contentious issue for the
last two years of the Bush presidency will be the
In order to prevent this issue from
harming his party’s prospects in 2008, look for Bush to embark on a version of
Richard Nixon’s “Vietnamization” strategy. In that context, military tactics sought to
This type of troop substitution
strategy is tricky because policymakers must avoid an all-out
In divided societies, the classic political solution to internal conflict is decentralization and regionalization. Power is devolved to the regions and each group is allowed to dictate policy in its own area.
The problem in
Effective power-sharing must involve sharing of oil resources for the internal violence to stop. The ethnic groups will not cease fighting and killing unless they feel they are getting a reasonable share of political and economic power. For Iraqis, the economic bases of any political settlement must prove satisfactory to each of the contending parties.
Risks and Opportunities for 2008
Both parties face considerable risks
over the next two years. For Democrats,
the risk of pushing immediate withdrawal is that
For Republicans, if there is no
withdrawal of American troops,
At a minimum, American policy needs
to move toward more genuine consultation with European allies. The time when the
American also needs to start talking
to adversaries within the
The lessons of 2006 are clear. Republicans and Democrats need to work
together to solve the