US President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi depart following a meeting with the Democratic caucus at the US Capitol in Washington, DC Photograph:( AFP )
The unusual structure of American government, combined with the electorate’s reflexive instinct to check the party in power, makes it hard for any party to retain a hold on both the White House and Congress for long
Usually, it’s the party out of power that frets about whether it will ever win again. This time, it’s the party in control of government that’s staring into the political wilderness.
Democrats now have a Washington trifecta — command of the White House and both chambers of Congress. If the results of last week’s elections in Virginia and elsewhere are any indication, they may not retain it after next November’s midterm elections. And a decade or longer may pass before they win a trifecta again.
The unusual structure of American government, combined with the electorate’s reflexive instinct to check the party in power, makes it hard for any party to retain a hold on both the White House and Congress for long.
Since World War II, political parties have waited an average of 14 years to regain full control of government after losing it. Only one president — Harry Truman — has lost Congress and retaken it later. In every other case, the president’s party regained a trifecta only after losing the White House.
It would be foolish to predict the next decade of election results. Still, today’s Democrats will have a hard time defying this long history. Not only do the Democrats have especially slim majorities, but they face a series of structural disadvantages in the House and the Senate that make it difficult to translate popular vote majorities into governing majorities.
The specter of divided government is a bitter one for Democrats.
The party has won the national popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections but has nonetheless struggled to amass enough power to enact its agenda. That has added to the high stakes in the ongoing negotiations over the large Democratic spending package, which increasingly looks like a last chance for progressives to push an ambitious agenda.
And it has helped spur the kind of acrimonious internal Democratic debate over the party’s message and strategy that would usually follow an electoral defeat, with moderates and progressives clashing over whether the party’s highly educated activist base needs to take a back seat for the party to cling to its majority. The strong Republican showing in Virginia and New Jersey last week has prompted yet another round of recriminations.
But with such a long history of the president’s party struggling to hold on to power, one wonders whether any policy, tactic or message might help Democrats escape divided government.
The political winds seem to blow against the president’s party almost as soon as a new party seizes the White House. For decades, political scientists have observed a so-called thermostatic backlash in public opinion, in which voters instinctively move to turn down the temperature when government runs too hot in either party’s favor. The pattern dates back as long as survey research and helps explain why the election of Barack Obama led to the Tea Party, or how Donald Trump’s election led to record support for immigration.
The president’s party faces additional burdens at the ballot box. A sliver of voters prefers gridlock and divided government and votes for a check and balance against the president. And the party out of power tends to enjoy a turnout advantage, whether because the president’s opponents are resolved to stop his agenda or because of complacency by the president’s supporters.
While Democrats can still hope to avoid losing control of Congress in 2022, Biden’s sagging approval ratings make it seem increasingly unlikely that they will. Historically, only presidents with strong approval ratings have managed to avoid the midterm curse. And with Democrats holding only the most tenuous majorities in the House and the Senate, any losses at all would be enough to break the trifecta.
If the Democrats are going to get a trifecta again, 2024 would seem to be their best chance. The president’s party usually bounces back when the president seeks reelection, perhaps because presidential elections offer a clear choice between two sides, not merely a referendum on the party in power. And in the House, a Democratic rebound in 2024 is very easy to imagine, even if far from assured.
The Senate, however, may be a different and ultimately bleaker story for Democrats.
In the short term, the president’s party is relatively insulated from midterm losses in the Senate, since only one-third of the seats are up for grabs. And the president’s party usually doesn’t have to defend much in its first midterm, as it has often already lost many of the contested seats six years earlier — when the party out of power fared well en route to last winning the White House. The same thing insulates some Democratic losses in 2022.
But if 2024 represents an opening for a Democratic bounce-back in the House, it may not offer as favorable an opportunity in the Senate. Democrats will have no opportunity to reclaim any Senate seats they might lose in 2022. And they will need to defend the seats they won six years earlier, in their 2018 midterm rout, including some in otherwise reliably Republican states such as West Virginia, Ohio and Montana. To hold or regain the Senate — and a trifecta — they might need all of those seats.
The Democratic grip on the Senate is dependent on holding Republican-leaning states because the Democrats are at a significant disadvantage in the chamber. The party tends to excel in a relatively small number of populous states, but every state receives two senators, regardless of population.
The size of the Democratic disadvantage in the Senate can be overstated: Biden won 25 states, after all, and the Democrats control the chamber today by the margin of Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote.
But the Democratic majority is tenuous, and there are few opportunities to solidify it: There are only 27 states where Biden was within 5 points of victory in 2020. And since there are only 19 states where Biden won by more than he did nationwide, Republicans could easily flip many seats if they benefit from a favorable political environment.
With Republicans commanding such formidable structural advantages in the chamber, some Democrats fear they could be reduced to just 43 Senate seats by the end of the 2024 election. If Biden won reelection, Republicans could claim even more seats in 2026. The path back to a Democratic trifecta would be daunting.
Even if Democrats do hold down their Senate losses next year, it would still be a long road back to control of the chamber. They might struggle to win it back until there’s a new Republican president, when the benefits of being the party out of power will again work to their advantage.