This looks to be a classic six-year-itch election — bad for the party holding the White House — tempered by some Republican structural advantages.
Since 1946, the average net loss for the president’s party in his sixth year in office is 31.5 House seats and six Senate seats — double the 15 seats Democrats need to take the House and just what they’d need for control of the Senate.
That level of loss for the GOP this year is by no means out of the question. In fact, some analysts think Democrats could pick up 40 seats, though they add that smaller numbers are possible. I think GOP losses will be on the smaller end of the range.
The pattern of sixth-year elections is that mistakes pile up — often, bad mistakes — damaging the president’s popularity and driving the public into a mood for change.
So in 1946, with President Harry Truman’s approval at 33 percent, Democrats lost 45 House seats and 12 in the Senate. In the recession year 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower’s popularity sunk to 52 percent — for him, that was low — and the GOP lost 48 seats in the House and 13 in the Senate.
In 1966, Vietnam War weariness sent President Lyndon Johnson’s approval rating down to 44 percent and the Democrats lost 47 House seats and four in the Senate. After Watergate in 1974, President Gerald Ford was at 47 percent approval and the GOP lost 49 seats in the House and four in the Senate.
The past two sixth-year midterms were anomalies. President Ronald Reagan’s approval still was in the 60s — though a month after the elections, the Iran-Contra scandal brought it down to 47 percent — and the GOP lost eight Senate seats, though just five in the House.
And in 1998, GOP threats to impeach President Bill Clinton kept his approval rating at 66 percent and Democrats ended up gaining five House seats and held even in the Senate.
This year, of course, the Iraq disaster is at least as much a liability to President Bush as Vietnam or a recession were in the past, and possibly as much as Watergate. But on top of that, House Republicans have proved the adage that power corrupts — and they’ve been running things for only 12 years, not 40.
Bush’s approval rating is below 40 percent — RealClearPolitics.com’s average of the latest polls is 38.5 percent — and the generic Congressional ballot shows that the public favors Democratic candidates for Congress by a margin of 53.5 percent to 38.5 percent.
The average of late-campaign generic polls is historically a highly accurate predictor of the national vote for House candidates. In 1994, Republicans won 54 percent of this vote and picked up 52 House seats.
And the latest Pew Research Center poll offers yet more evidence that a big wave is about to crash on the GOP. All kinds of swing voters who helped Republicans win the 2002 elections have defected in droves to the Democrats.