US midterm elections are held every four years, and they’re a major test for sitting presidents. If a party loses control of Congress, it’s more difficult to advance the president’s agenda.
Historically, the party in the White House loses seats in the midterms. The trend was upended in 2002, when the party of President George W. Bush gained a few seats in the House and Senate, thanks to aggressive campaigning.
Since World War II, House seats have generally changed hands in midterms when the president’s approval rating is below 50%. In recent years, this has been particularly true of Democratic presidents.
In 2018, there was a strong blue wave in many states, with the Democratic Party winning seats in a record-breaking number of districts. This was led by Democratic candidates increasing their share of the vote, and many of them winning seats previously held by Republican candidates.
Some voters voted less than usual, but the overall turnout was high: nearly half of eligible Americans turned out to vote in 2018. Voter participation was much higher than it has been for midterms in 100 years and is the highest level for a midterm since 2014.
Among voters with annual family incomes of more than $150,000, Democrats won by an overwhelming margin (65% to 30%). This was the largest majority for any party in any race, and was largely driven by strong turnout of high-income voters.
There were also some surprising wins for Democratic candidates in races that were not expected to be competitive. For example, Sharice Davids, the joint-first Native American congresswoman from Kansas, increased her vote share in her district by 13% and won a seat that had been held by a Republican.
This was a large swing towards the Democrats, but in many districts, it wasn’t enough to overcome challenges from the Republicans. For example, West Virginia’s 3rd district flipped from Republican to Democratic, but a strong turnout by young and Latinx voters was not sufficient to make the difference in this race.
Abortion, immigration and other social issues dominated the national political debate this year. These issues drove turnout and the votes of many Democratic congressional candidates, especially in suburban areas and urban centers.
The president’s approval rating typically reaches a low in the first midterm after a new administration takes office. In the first midterms of Presidents Bill Clinton in 1994 and Barack Obama in 2010, they both saw their approval ratings sink to below 50%.
Despite this, some of the president’s key policies, including the expansion of government-run healthcare programs, protection of abortion rights and tightening gun control, were able to survive. But the Democrats lost control of Congress in both chambers and will need to work harder to defend their policies if they want to keep them alive.
The next two years will be critical to the future of US politics. If the Democrats can hold onto both chambers, they will be in a strong position to pursue their agenda. If the Republicans take control, they will be able to stall or even reverse many of President Biden’s policies.