1. Midterm elections happen every four years and are ‘mid-way’ through a four-year presidential term.
Unlike in the United Kingdom where all of parliament is elected at once, in the United States different elected officials serve terms of varying length. The president serves for four years, members of the House of Representatives serve for two years, and senators serve for six years. As a result, the US holds a major election every even-numbered year (on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November). These elections alternate between presidential elections and midterms. So, for example, 2012 was a presidential year, 2014 is a midterm year, and 2016 will be another presidential year. The only real difference between the two is that in presidential years, rather surprisingly, a president is elected. Regardless of whether the election is a midterm or a presidential, all 435 seats in the House and about one-third of the 100 seats in the Senate are contested.
Curiosity Interlude: If you’re thinking “Wow, that sounds like members of the House have to run for re-election every two years,” you’re absolutely correct. A lot of people think this is crazy, including the Economist. Read their proposed fix here.
2. Some state officials are also elected in midterm years, and these races are more important than you might think.
State governments in the US are roughly equivalent to local governments in the UK. Although every state is different, many state officials – like governors, state senators, and state representatives – are elected in midterms, as well. In 2014, 36 of the 50 states will be electing a governor. Gubernatorial races are always important to watch because many presidential races are made up of former governors. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were governors before becoming president, and Mitt Romney served as Governor of Massachusetts from 2003-2007. Control of state government is also important to national politics because, in many states, the legislature controls the redrawing of districts (equivalent to British constituencies).
Drawing Interlude: Redrawing districts to give a certain party an advantage is called ‘gerrymandering’. If you’re interested in the etymology of the word, how it works, and what it looks like, check out this explanation from Vox.
3. The midterm electorate favours Republicans over Democrats.
This is an almost infallible rule in American politics. The people that come out to vote in midterms are older, whiter, and more male – three groups that tend to vote Republican. For example, in 2008, a presidential election year, 16% of Florida voters were aged 65 or above. In 2010, a midterm year, that number was 35%. Don’t be mistaken and think Republicans have a monopoly over all national elections, because the inverse of this rule is also true: the electorate in presidential years tends to favour Democrats.
Heads or Tails? Like coins, there are two sides to every argument, and some political scientists and statisticians are starting to wonder whether the aforementioned trend actually affects election results. To get the flipside, visit the popular statistics super-blog, FiveThirtyEight.
4. Historically, midterm results also favour the party NOT in the White House.
In the past century, the president’s party has only gained House seats in three midterm elections, all of which have occurred under extraordinary circumstances. In 1934, as the country rallied around FDR’s New Deal, Roosevelt’s party took nine seats from the opposition. In 1998, as the Republican Party began the unpopular process of impeaching Bill Clinton, Democrats picked up five seats. In 2002, just 14 months after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush’s party gained a net total of eight seats.
(Long but worth it) Professional Wrestling Interlude: 1998 was a bizarre election for many reasons, not just Clinton’s party picking up seats. In one of the best political upset stories in American history, former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura pulled off the rare third party victory and won the governorship of Minnesota as a member of the Reform Party. After winning, he gave one of the oddest victory speeches ever, complete with phrases of questionable intention like “If they’re mistakes from the heart, you don’t have to apologise,” and “We wasted them with wasted votes.” (Oh also, much of the crowd is clearly intoxicated and gets quite rowdy.) Spend eight wonderful minutes of your life watching it here.
5. It’s really, really hard to unseat a sitting representative or senator.
In 2012, the incumbent re-election rate – or the percentage of sitting members of Congress who kept their seat – was 90%. Much of this is due to gerrymandered districts, but it’s also largely because people like their representatives and senators. Although the approval rate of Congress as a whole is an abysmal 13%, 46% of Americans approve of the job their individual representative is doing. Cognitive dissidence notwithstanding, these statistics are absurd. You would never expect 90% of any body – especially one of 535 people – to be doing their jobs that well. (Spoiler: they’re not.) The result is, of course, that turnover and change in American politics is sluggish at best.
#OldGuyTweets Interlude: The longest serving member of the House is 88 year-old World War II veteran John Dingell, a Democratic congressman currently representing Michigan’s 12th district. He’s been an incumbent 29 times, having first won his seat in 1955. He also, incidentally, has Congress’s best twitter feed, saying things like “Staff has now informed of what a Kardashian is. I’m only left with more questions.” Follow him @John_Dingell and enjoy some of his best tweets here.
I'm the last original author of the Clean Water Act, but I have no idea who/what a Kardashian is and I rarely play games. You OK, @EPAwater?
— John Dingell (@john_dingell) July 22, 2014
Staff has now informed me of what a Kardashian is. I'm only left with more questions.
— John Dingell (@john_dingell) July 22, 2014
6. Huge amounts of money will be spent for almost no reason.
In 2010, because the US has virtually no restrictions on political fundraising, $3.6 billion were spent on the midterm elections. This year, almost all predictions say overall spending will be over $4 billion. This really is a preposterous amount of money, but what’s even more preposterous is the amount of change it affects. As previously discussed, nine in ten incumbents win re-election. So politicians, corporations, unions, special interest groups and ridiculously wealthy individuals (see: Charles and David Koch) are all spending exorbitant amounts of money for the electoral map to look virtually the same for another two years.
Check out this advert by GOP candidate for Alaska, Dan Sullivan. Obviously the sort of calm and measured person you want as governor…
Welcome to America.
Image credit: Wikipedia.