Five Midterm Myths

1. Midterm votes foretell future election results.

Midterm elections are largely determined by short-term factors, including the popularity of the president and the state of the economy. As a result, they rarely indicate anything about longer-term trends, and they have no value in predicting the results of the subsequent presidential and congressional elections.

2. It’s an anti-incumbent year.

We hear this almost every time midterm elections come along at a time of widespread voter discontent. But even when voters seem very unhappy, the vast majority of incumbents in both parties are reelected. Despite Congress’s low approval ratings this year, only a handful of incumbents have lost their primaries, and there were peculiar reasons for several of those defeats. While a second round of incumbents is likely to lose seats in November, it is unlikely that more than 10 percent of lawmakers will be ousted. The incumbents who do lose in a given midterm tend to come overwhelmingly from the president’s party.

3. The president’s message is crucial.

In fact, his message has little effect on midterm elections. If voters are unhappy with the president and the economy is bad, even a great communicator such as Reagan can do little to prevent significant losses by his party. The same is true for presidential advisers. Of course, some individual seats will always be affected by the president’s message. And in a year when the difference between Democrats losing 35 or 40 House seats is the difference between having Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Speaker John Boehner, every district matters.

4. It’s always about the economy.

Not always. A down economy generally makes the president’s party look bad and contributes to significant losses by that party in the midterms. But a poor economy does not automatically mean electoral disaster — and a strong economy does not guarantee good results, particularly if voters are concerned about other problems, such as scandals or wars. This year, however, the economy may trump all. Thanks to the economic collapse, the bailouts of fat cats that followed, and stubbornly sluggish growth and high unemployment, it’s once again the economy, stupid.

5. Midterms provide mandates.

To the degree that voting results in congressional districts around the country add up to any unified message, it is a judgment on the party in power — and usually a negative one at that. But the winning party, aided by a media that wants to dramatize election results, tends to spin this judgment as a sign of public support for its policy goals.

Read more from Alan Abramowitz and Norman Ornstein at The Washington Post

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