Congressional elections are held every two years. There are elections for 1/3rd of the Senate (who sit for six years) and for all of the House of Representatives who all stand for re-election after two years. These are held mid-way (two years) through a president’s term in office and are called mid-term elections.
Mid-terms can be used as an indicator of what the electorate think about the president’s performance and "their results can be of critical importance to the incumbent president." (Vile)
George Bush had the following scenario:
2000 - general election victory but many questioned the validity of the result and for a while the electoral system of America was questioned. That the man who won had fewer people voting for him, meant that statistically, the loser, Al Gore, was a more popular choice with the electorate. To start with, Bush had problems with Congress when they would not ratify some of his cabinet choices and the first months of his presidency were troubled.
2002 - mid-term elections - the first to be held after 9/11. With the nation rallying around their president, it would be natural to expect a drift to the Republicans in Congress and this is what happened. The unique circumstances of the elections and America's specific domestic situation meant that it would be a brave Congress that put obstacles in the way of the Commander-in-Chief.
2004 - national election with all House seats and 1/3rd of Senate seats up for election. The result was that Bush now has a Republican controlled House and Senate. This is no guarantee that it will be a mere rubber stamp for presidential recommendations but with the nation still at 'war' and with foreign policy a dominant issue, it is probable that both Congress and President will work together.
The issue of mid-term elections does throw up unusual situations. In 1997, Clinton had a popular mandate as president yet the Republicans controlled the legislative body of Congress. Does one undermine the other or is this situation simply the result of democracy and the set-up established by the Founding Fathers who wished to separate the Executive (the president's office) and the Legislative (Congress)?
In 1956, Eisenhower had the same scenario as Clinton and the same happened. Both groups worked as partners to ensure that the system was seen to win and be beneficial to America despite Congress being dominated by Democrats and Eisenhower being a Republican.
The above situation is, in fact, not uncommon as the same happened in 1968 and 1972 when the president had to work with a Congress that had a majority in it that was not from his party. Other scenarios can occur.
In 1980, Reagan had a strong general election victory. He was a Republican. There was also a Republican majority in the Senate for the first time since 1954. But the House of Representatives had a Democrat Party majority.
It is common for a president’s party to lose out in mid-term elections. Two reasons have frequently been put forward to explain this :
1. Local issues tend to gather more importance in mid-term elections whereas in general elections, the voters are more likely to vote for a candidate and for national issues which outweigh any local problems that might have been identified.
2. Political commentators write about "normal disillusionment" with the party of the president in power. The same argument is put forward in Britain when the government does badly at a by-election : "it happens all the time but when the general election comes………."
The mid-term elections can put the president in a very difficult position. Does he support his party’s Congressmen who might suffer at the polls as a result of local issues ? If he does not, then the morale of the party as a whole might be negatively affected. If he does, then he might be associated with failure if his party’s candidates lose and this could seriously damage the president’s own prestige i.e. supporting a ‘loser’.
The president also faces another type of problem. If, as a Democrat president, he actively campaigns for his party and candidates and they lose, he will have to work with a Republican Congress and he will not be able to guarantee Congressional support for his policies which could make his last two years a ‘lame duck’ presidency and condemn his party to the political wilderness for some years. This could be especially true if the mid-term campaigning had been negative and unpleasant.
Another complicating factor is that some of the president’s biggest critics with regards to presidential policies could be from his own party. Would he be keen to see them re-elected to boost party strength or would he prefer to see them lose their seat which could weaken his own position both in Congress and in the public perception of his political strength? Does the president campaign for those who have supported him and not for those who have been a thorn in his side ? What happens if he supports some candidates and those candidates do not win ?
The mid-terms present a president with a difficult balancing act. He can use the opportunity to try to rid his party of those who have not supported him but he could also see those he has supported lose and the consequences for him could be dire. The 1998 mid-term elections were different.
Logic suggested that Clinton would do badly. He already had a Republican-dominated Congress and his problems with regards to Monica Lewinsky and the Starr inquiry could have had a devastating impact on the Democrats. That the opposite occurred is almost certainly unique to these elections. No other president had faced such a public investigation into his private life. The indications seemed to show that there was public condemnation of Clinton’s actions but as they were not of political importance or did not affect national security, they were not for the public domain. It would appear that the Republicans totally overplayed their hand and the voters reacted accordingly.
That Clinton came out of the scandal reasonably intact politically (his rating level was 63% after the showing of ‘the’ video which many presidents would have been very content with during a mid-term election) was probably the result of the Republican’s failure to take advantage of the situation which cost Newt Gingrich his position and the manipulation of expectation by the Democrats who leaked that Clinton would come out very badly from the video and that the world would hold its breath when, in fact, Clinton came out calm, professional etc. and gave the impression that he was the man in charge. It is unlikely that such a scenario will happen again in American politics so the background to the 1998 mid-terms is almost certain to be unique.
Research indicates that there is no obvious link between the president’s name and Congressional elections. In 1952, the Republican Eisenhower got 56% of the votes in the general election. He was a former military commander who could claim to be one of the world’s most famous men of that time having lead the Allied forces at D-Day 1944. In 1952, the Republicans also won both the Senate and House elections so the Republicans stood supreme politically in that year.
In 1954, the Democrats won a majority in the mid-term elections and controlled Congress. Yet in the 1956 general election, Eisenhower was re-elected with a larger percentage vote - 58%. But Congress remained dominated by the Democrats. Therefore it is safe to conclude that the name of Eisenhower counted for little in the Congressional elections held at the same time as the presidential election.
Another issue that plays a part in Congressional elections is the so-called "coat tail effect". This is where either the president or his party ‘hangs’ on to the other if one appears stronger and therefore a good lever during an election. In 1952, the Republican Party clearly ‘hung’ on to the coat tail of Eisenhower and the Republican Party benefited in Congress. In 1960, the Democrat Party was popular and its presidential nominee, Kennedy, probably was not as popular as political analysts thought in the wave of sympathy after his death. It is possible that he was elected because of voter support for the Democrats and that he ‘clung’ onto their coat tails. Could his lack of overwhelming popularity have cost the Democrats seats in the Congress?
It is possible that the Republicans in Congress might benefit from this 'coat-tail impact' in November 2002 as many Americans may well rally around their president and his party. The approval ratings for President Bush remain high and his party may benefit accordingly.
"The coat tail effect provides one of the enigmas of American politics." (Vile)
Two theories have been put forward to explain the way people vote in Congressional elections.
1.A popular president may influence the turnout of voters but he has little effect on the way people vote in Congressional elections.
2. Local factors are more important for Congressional elections than the status of the president or national issues; i.e. people vote for the president having given consideration to national issues but they vote for Congressmen on local ones.
If local factors are the most important issues for Congressional elections, then prospective Senators and Congressmen must pay attention to the thoughts and attitudes of those in their constituencies. The same is true for those who hold office. The views of the constituents could determine whether office holders support presidential policies and if his/her re-election depends on local opinion/issues, (s)he will have to publicly state whether (s)he supports the president on certain issues
A Congressman or Senator will only get elected if he has support in his constituency. If it is apparent that the voters there do not support certain presidential actions, then the office holder - when the time comes for re-election - has the choice of supporting his president (if he is in the same party) but alienating the voters and therefore possibly losing his office or siding with his potential supporters in his constituency at the expense of the president. Therefore, the Congressional elections can have a marked impact on the president's position and standing in Washington and tension can occur as a result of this.
Another issue that has caused problems between Congress and the White House has been gerrymandering and the mal-apportionment of Congressional constituencies. (See electoral districts). If one party is deemed to have used its power in an inappropriate though legal manner at a state level, the implications this might have in Washington for Congress and the president to work together can be serious.
Traditionally, the president has been well supported in urbanised and well populated areas and Congress has always had what has been perceived to be a bias towards rural areas. Though this is an oversimplification, the two split loyalties can obviously clash despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1962 (Baker v Carr) that states could not have a malapportioned legislature (i.e. one group being more represented than others as a result of electoral boundaries) which in 1964 was expanded to include Congressional districts. The rule is that one person’s vote is not worth any more than another person’s. However, this has not done much to guarantee better representation of all groups in Congress and therefore it has yet to have a marked impact on the relationship Congress has with the president.
Those in Congress - be they Senators or Representatives - are in the situation of having split loyalties. Are they loyal to the president of America? Are they loyal to their party? Are they loyal to those who vote for them? Given the complexities of American politics, what answers would politicians give during a Congressional election campaign?