The performance of the economy, it has long been believed, is the key determinant of voting behavior in the midterm elections. For example, the recession of 1982, and a corresponding double-digit unemployment rate, is usually blamed for the twenty-six-seat loss that Ronald Reagan’s Republicans sustained in the House that year. Or take 1946, when the economy contracted severely while reorienting itself after World War II and Harry Truman’s Democrats lost fifty-four House seats. Dwight Eisenhower’s Republicans faced reelection in a recessionary environment in 1958 and lost forty-eight seats; Gerald Ford’s, also facing a recession (as well as the stain of Watergate), lost the same number in 1974.
Recent elections, however, have done much to challenge that premise. Bill Clinton helped to create millions of new jobs and pull the economy out of recession, and yet in 1994, his party suffered a catastrophic defeat at the midterms, losing a net of fifty-four representatives and eight senators. George W. Bush, on the other hand, gained eight House seats in 2002 in spite of an economy that had just escaped from a recession and was still shedding jobs.
There are some earlier contradictions, too, when one examines the record more carefully. The economy was extremely strong in 1966, growing at a 6.5 percent clip that year, but Lyndon Johnson couldn’t stave off the loss of forty-seven Democratic seats in the House. On the other hand, George H. W. Bush’s Republicans lost just eight seats for the party in 1990 in spite of an economy still in the midst of a recession.