Why comparing the 2022 midterm dynamics to 1966 is risky

Large-scale gains by one party are difficult in today’s environment

Unified Democratic control of Washington, exemplified by President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, could well lead to Republican midterm gains next year, but historic parallels only take you so far in today's polarized environment, Rothenberg writes.  (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
Unified Democratic control of Washington, exemplified by President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, could well lead to Republican midterm gains next year, but historic parallels only take you so far in today's polarized environment, Rothenberg writes. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
Posted July 12, 2021 at 9:00am

ANALYSISDemocrats lost 47 House seats in the 1966 midterm elections, and that result still “haunts” them, wrote Washington Post columnist Charles Lane recently. But should it?

After noting President Joe Biden’s solid job approval numbers and widespread predictions of a strong economic recovery over the next year and a half, Lane listed a few developments that unnerved voters prior to the 1966 midterms and could do so again next year, including a surge in inflation, a spike in crime (especially the homicide rate) and a “backlash against the racial-justice achievements of the Johnson administration by White voters who often blamed the civil rights movement for urban uprisings in Watts in 1965 and Cleveland in 1966.”

Republican candidates used those wedge issues and others to turn out GOP voters and attract traditionally Democratic voters who were fearful about the present and the future. 

Those same controversies are in the news today, and, while we don’t yet know what the 2022 political environment will be like, Republicans are likely to use them as the party did in 1966 in trying to define next year’s midterms.

“Democrats’ control of Washington may hinge on their ability to address legitimate concerns about inflation and crime, without abandoning the drive for racial justice — or allowing their most progressive voices to alienate suburban moderates,” Lane wrote in his column.

And yet, while there are similarities between 1966 and 2022, there are also obvious differences.

Ronald Reagan broke up the New Deal coalition in 1980. Donald Trump dramatically scrambled the electorate in 2016 and again in 2018, changing the tone of our politics. The internet has changed how we communicate, and voter confidence in crucial institutions has been undermined. The country is much less white and more suburban now than it was 55 years ago, and we are much more ideologically polarized than we were in 1966.

But the fundamental shape of the parties going into the 1966 and 2022 midterms is also dramatically different. 

If the Republican Party were a stock, we would say that it was seriously “over-sold” going into the 1966 elections.

Democrats had gained 37 House seats in the 1964 elections, giving them a huge 295-140 seat advantage in the chamber.

The debacle of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign had cost the GOP seats they never should have lost, so the 1966 midterms offered them a raft of easy targets, which helped Republicans snap back from the pummeling they had taken only two years earlier.

The 47-seat Republican gain in 1966 brought the party up near its “normal” range. In the seven House elections from 1960 to 1972, the GOP won anywhere from as few as 175 House seats to as many as 192 — except in 1964, when the party captured the paltry 140.

Republicans defeated 26 House Democratic freshmen in the 1966 midterms. Those Democrats had been swept into Congress on the coattails of Lyndon Johnson’s landslide against Goldwater but lost their seats two years later when “normalcy” returned.

According to Greg Giroux, formerly of Congressional Quarterly, and my own district-by-district count, almost half of those freshman Democrats who won in 1964 but lost two years later — 12 — came from only three Midwest states: Iowa (four seats), Michigan (five seats) and Ohio (three seats).

The large GOP gain was also fueled by middecade redistricting, which occurred because of the Supreme Court’s “one man, one vote” ruling. (See the high court’s February 1964 ruling in Wesberry v. Sanders.)

Republicans won six of seven districts that were created when incumbent House members ran in different districts, leaving their previous seats open. The open districts included Florida’s 10th, Indiana’s 7th, New Jersey’s 1st, Ohio’s 15th, Pennsylvania’s 7th, Texas’ 23rd and Texas’ 7th, which sent a Republican named George H.W. Bush to the House.

The current House lineup and the political dynamics are very different.

First, there are 220 Democrats and 211 Republicans in the House, with four vacancies split evenly between the two parties. Neither party is dramatically overrepresented or underrepresented.

Second, the GOP gained 12 seats in 2020, winning back some districts the party would not have lost in 2018 had it not been for Trump alienating college-educated whites who live in metropolitan areas. 

Of course, there are still some districts like that where Democrats won in 2018 and again in 2020. Some of those seats might well be vulnerable next year if the midterm dynamic hurts Biden’s party in House races around the country.

Third, the country is so polarized and defined by partisanship that it will be difficult (though not impossible) for Republicans to pick up the four dozen seats that they would need to equal their gains of 1966. 

Only 16 congressional districts split their tickets in races for president and the House last fall — nine districts voted for Biden for president and a Republican for the House, while seven districts voted for Trump in 2020 but a Democrat for the House.

This extreme polarization dampens the possibility of large House swings, since there are relatively few voters who see both parties as acceptable. 

Still, Lane is surely correct that some of the themes and issues of 1966 could play a role again in 2022, and Democrats ought not ignore history.

While the parties’ fundamentals suggest a large 40-plus swing is unlikely given the current partisan distribution of seats, recent history has demonstrated that voters are unpredictable, and midterms remain dangerous for the party holding the White House.