With roughly nine months to go until the midterm elections, there is a robust debate right now about whether Democrats can take the House of Representatives. A few weeks ago, it looked like a certainty, but the GOP poll position seems to have improved a bit, which is a cause for (modest) Republican optimism.
Without laying odds one way or another, it’s fair to say that history points to the Democrats having a very good chance at winning the House, regardless of which way the polls might be swinging on any given day. The partisan track record of House elections suggests that since the beginning of the nation, when the two parties are reasonably competitive, voters use midterm elections to check the party of the president.
The Framers did not anticipate the rise of organized, permanent political parties, but they did think the House of Representatives would be the branch most reflective of public opinion. In the original constitutional framework, the Senate and the executive were to be removed from the people, via state legislatures and the Electoral College, respectively, but the House would be directly affected by the national mood — via direct elections that happen every two years. This was in keeping with the common view of the age that republican government had to be intimately connected to the people, but only to a degree.
As political parties began to develop, sure enough, the House started to embody the relative strength and weaknesses of the major parties. During periods of intense partisan competition, change in control of the House has usually been a regular occurrence.
It happened three times during the Washington and Adams presidencies, swinging from Federalist to Jeffersonian Republican, then back to Federalist, and finally settling in for a generation-long period of Republican control starting in 1800. But as the Republican party began to fracture in the 1820s, the House become disorganized. The 18th Congress, from 1823 to 1825, was nominally Republican but split along personal factions between Andrew Jackson, William Crawford, and John Quincy Adams — foretelling the contentious election of 1824.
Jackson’s eventual triumph in 1828 realigned American politics, which evolved into a division between Democrats and Whigs. Jackson’s personal dominance of the landscape was a boon for his Democrats, but after he left office, the Whigs became competitive. In the 1840s, partisan control regularly changed hands between the two sides.
The rising importance of the slavery issue led to the collapse of the Whigs, the founding of the Lincolnian Republicans, and the secession of the South. These political developments led in turn to a durable period of Republican control of the House, from 1858 until roughly the end of Reconstruction. But once the South was more or less returned to the political fold, the House became competitive, shifting often between the two parties during the Gilded Age — even as the Republicans maintained the upper hand in the race for the presidency.
This came to an end after the Panic of 1893, for which the Democrats under Grover Cleveland got the blame. With the Democrats tagged as the party of recession, the Republicans enjoyed nearly 20 years of total control of the government, only broken by the splinter between progressive and conservative Republicans, which led to Woodrow Wilson’s election. The 1910s were a time of competitive party politics. Unsurprisingly, the House was once again up for grabs.
The 1920s and 30s were periods of one-party dominance, first for the GOP then for the Democrats. But the 1940s were substantially more competitive as the Republicans rebounded nationwide, nearly taking control of the House in 1942, then taking it in 1946, and then once again in 1952.
The 40-year period between 1954 and 1994 when the Democrats dominated the House is quite an outlier in our politics. There have, of course, been other times when one party has controlled the lower chamber so thoroughly (such as the Jeffersonian Era and the Civil War Era), but these were also periods when the presidency was not really contested, either. The Cold War period, by contrast, saw competitive elections for the White House but a static House of Representatives. In truth, this was due primarily to the fact that the Democrats were actually two parties: one of northern liberals and one of southern conservatives, whose voters increasingly backed the GOP on the presidential level. When the southern wing of the Democratic party finally fell apart, in 1994, the House once again became competitive.
When the two major parties are roughly equal in terms of public support, the House tends to swing back and forth between the two.
With the exception of the 1954–94 stretch, what we find is a pretty reliable rule of thumb: When the two major parties are roughly equal in terms of public support, the House tends to swing back and forth between the two. In particular, it often serves as a contrary indicator to presidential elections: Voters check the occupant of the White House by giving the minority party a House majority in the midterm election. Over the past 40 years, this has happened to Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. And before the period of Democratic dominance, it happened to Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman. Before that, it happened to Woodrow Wilson and William Howard Taft, to Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, and Ulysses S. Grant.
This just seems to be how electoral politics works in our country. And it suggests that the House Republican majority is in true peril. President Donald Trump has long been unpopular, and voters tend to respond to unpopular presidents by forcing them to deal with a House of the opposition party. Every election is different, of course, and Trump’s standing with the public could always improve. Still, history suggests that the GOP has an uphill battle if it is to retain control of the House of Representatives.
— Jay Cost is the author of The Price of Greatness: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the Creation of American Oligarchy.