The 2002 American Midterm Election:

The Republican Victory in Historical Perspective


This article appears in the Journal of Asia Pacific Affairs, Spring 2003
 

The Bush administration won an historically unusual victory in the 2002 midterm elections, picking up 8 seats in the House of Representative and gaining 2 seats in the Senate.  The two major issues in 2002 were coping with terrorism in the aftermath of September 11 and the dismal state of the American economy, and Bush’s hard-line on terrorism proved to be decisive.  This triumph put the Republicans in control of the presidency and both houses of Congress for the first time in almost half a century.  Pundits agree that this bolsters the power of the Bush administration, although it is difficult to judge to what degree.  This article discusses the changing pattern of midterm elections in order to put the 2002 midterm in historical perspective.  It then assesses in what ways it might strengthen the Bush administration in domestic and international policymaking.
 

I. The Changing Pattern of Midterm Elections

While most popular and media attention is focused on the four year presidential cycle, the American constitutional system mandates a congressional cycle in which the entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate are up for election every two years. (Busch)  At stake in these midterm elections are not only party control of both houses of Congress, but also whether the president and his party have the initiative in policymaking or whether the opposition party has the votes to thwart presidential policies.  Typically, in midterm elections the president’s party loses seat in Congress, the president loses some clout in the policy process, and because of this his administration is pushed toward the political center.  How much the president’s party loses depends partially on the level of the president’s popularity.

Historically, there has been one party that dominates Congress and a lesser party that is clearly the minority party, as Lubell called it, a “sun” party and a “moon” party. (Key, Burnham, Sundquist)  However, since 1994 the American Congress has been very closely divided, with no real “sun” party.  Also, historically the “sun” party has tended to control both the presidency and both houses of Congress.  Yet since the mid-1950s, and especially since 1980, there has been a new pattern of “divided government,” in which the party opposed the president has tended to control one or both houses of Congress.

The president’s party nearly always loses seats in the midterm election.  In the sixty years from 1934 to 1994, the president’s party lost seats in the House of Representative in every midterm election and lost seats in the Senate in 13 of the 15 midterms.  This was largely because of the interaction between the four year presidential election cycle and the two year congressional election cycle.  In presidential years, the winning candidate had “coattails;” that is, many members of his party won election to Congress, especially the House of Representatives, by hanging on to the presidential winner’s coattails.  The wave of support for a party’s presidential candidate tended to inflate the vote for members of his party running for office, and thus the presidential winner’s party tended to surge to victory in closely contested congressional races.  Then two years later, when the president was not on the ticket to help his party, and often the president was less popular with voters, many of the close victories in the past election were reversed.  The opposition party regained what it had lost two years before, and often gained strength compared to their position two years prior.  These pendulum swings were an astonishingly regular pattern, although the strength of these swings varied considerably depending on the popularity of the president and variations of which the issues dominated particular campaigns.
 

What has been slowly changing in the past century is not so much the nature of midterm elections as the decline of presidential coattails.  Presidential and congressional election cycles have been “decoupling.  Over time, winning presidents have brought in fewer and fewer new members of Congress from their party.  As a result, the pendulum swing away from their party in midterms has generally decreased as well.
 

In three of the last four midterm elections, there has been little change in party strength, as is shown in the graph below.  Seen in the light of the Bill Clinton’s small gains in 1998 and his father’s small losses in 1990, the Republican’s small gains in the 2002 midterm do not seem so anomalous.  However, there was a massive shift in the midterm of 1994.  To explain that historic election, we need to consider more than the midterm election cycle.
 


 

II. The Decline of the Democratic Party

The 1994 midterm election was driven by another historical dynamic—the long-term decline of the Democratic party, which had established itself as the dominant “sun” party in the 1930s.  This change is more properly understood as the decline of the Democratic party rather than the rise of the Republicans.  Scientific surveys of party identification have shown that for two generations the number of voters identifying with the Democratic party has been slowly declining, while the number of voters identifying with the Republican party has not been increasing.  Instead, it is the number of voters who say they identify with neither party, independents, that is growing.  The Harris Poll finds the percentage of people who identify with the Democratic party fell from 49% to 36% from 1968 to 2001, while the percentage of Republican identifiers only changed from 32% to 31%.

 

Since the New Deal realignment of the early 1930s, the Democratic party controlled the House of Representative 60 of the 64 years from 1930-1994, and they controlled the Senate 54 of those 64 years. (see Party Strength graph)  The first cracks in the New Deal party system of Democratic dominance came when Republican Eisenhower won the presidency and the Republicans regained Congress in 1952.  But even though Eisenhower was popular and easily won a second term, the Democrats regained control of Congress in 1954 and held it tightly for most of the next 40 years.

 


 

 

The end of the New Deal party system came not in Congress, but in the presidency.  In 1968 a Republican presidential majority emerged, with the Republicans winning the presidency 20 of 24 years from 1968-1992.  For the first time in the 20th century a pattern of divided government became common. (see graph below)  Divided government is when one party controls the presidency and the other party controls one or both houses of Congress.  From 1968-1992, the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives, and except for a six year interruption from 1980-86, they also controlled the Senate.  In this so-called split-level party system, Republicans presidents faced Democratic Congresses. (Galderisi, Herzberg, and McNamara, Mayhew, Fiorina, Cox and Kernell)  The only party government in this period was the four years that Democrat Jimmy Carter sat in the White House.
 

 


 

 

The next dramatic realignment of the party system came in the Bill Clinton era.  Clinton was only the second Democratic president to win election in 24 years.  For his first two years, party government was temporarily restored.  However, in the mid-term election of 1994, a new political landslide occurred.  The Republicans won control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate for the first time in 40 years.  Republican gains in 1994 were unusually large, especially for recent years, 54 seats in the House and 9 seats in the Senate.  More importantly, Republicans held onto control of Congress for the next six years, even as Clinton won reelection in 1996.
 

The reasons for the long-term decline of the Democratic party are well understood. (Lawrence, Paulson, Stonecash)  Over time, the Depression era crisis that had forged the New Deal party system and cemented the loyalty of a generation of voters to the Democratic party faded from voters’ memories and new issues that split the Democratic coalition emerged. (Sundquist, Campbell, Manza and Brooks)  Under the New Deal party system, the Democratic party was a peculiar coalition of the most liberal and the most conservatives forces in the country. (Burns, Shafer and Claggett)  In the South, the Democrats were conservative segregationists, while in the rest of the country they were liberals.  During the racial crisis of the 1960s, the northern liberals gained full control of the national party and passed a series of civil rights policies that alienated conservative southerners.  From the mid-1960s through the mid-1990s there was a long, slow, but massive defection of southern conservatives from the Democratic party. (Glaser)  Corresponding Democratic gains in the Northeast, Midwest, and the Pacific Coast were too small to make up for these losses.
 

Democrats were also hurt by their association with the hugely unpopular Vietnam War.  Furthermore, changes in the method of nominating party candidates tended to ideologically polarize the political parties, reinforcing the trend of the Democrats becoming more liberal and the Republicans becoming more conservative. (Cameron, Abramowitz and Kyle)  From the late 1960s on, as New Deal liberalism declined as a public philosophy, and more voters came to identify themselves as conservatives, this polarization of the party system along ideological lines benefited the Republicans.
 

However, the reasons why this general long-term decline of the Democratic party was expressed so massively in the 1994 midterm election are less well agreed upon.  (Gettinger, Jacobson, Klinker, Ladd, Schousen, Stonecash and Mariani)  Certainly the capture of the presidency by Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992 was a large part of it.Clinton’s first two years were perceived as a failure, which certainly hurt his party in 1994.  He came into office with historically low popularity rating for a newly victorious candidate, and his approval ratings quickly fell sharply below the 50% mark.  Although Clinton ran as a centrist Democrat, political conservatives, particularly in the South, apparently were uneasy with the more liberal Democratic party controlling all the institutions of national government.  Democratic losses in the 1994 midterm were concentrated in their former stronghold in the South.  Although Republicans gained ground in every region of the country, their success in the South was most dramatic.  Republicans won a majority of House seats in the South for the first time in their century and a half history.
 
 

III. Elections in the Evenly Balanced Post-1994 Party System

Not only did the Republicans capture Congress in 1994, they held it throughout rest of the 1990s, although their lead narrowed in both 1996 and 1998.  The midterm of 1998 was as historically anomalous as the 2002 midterm. (Abramowitz, Highton)  Bill Clinton, who had suffered such a massive defeat in the 1994 midterm, was able not just to hold his ground, but to actually gain 5 seats in the House and hold even in the Senate in 1998.This probably was largely because the Democrats had lost so much in 1994 and had gained back little in 1996 when Clinton’s own reelection had no coattails.  Also, defying the general historical pattern, Clinton’s personal popularity was actually higher in 1998 than it had been in his first term, while the man most associated with the Republican congressional majority, House Speaker Next Gingrich, had large negative ratings.  Counterintuitively, the “zippergate” scandal actually backfired on Republicans who were blamed more than Clinton by voters for their partisan pursuit of a popular president.  The 1996 and 1998 congressional elections remained largely decoupled from Bill Clinton’s personal saga.

 

Both the decoupling of presidential and congressional races and the very even balance of Democratic and Republican strength could also be seen in the election of 2000.  The bizarre nature of the 2000 presidential election has been well documented, including the fact that even though Democrat Al Gore won a majority of the popular vote, George W. Bush won the election that in the American constitutional system really matters, the Electoral College. (Ceasar and Busch)
 

 

But the Republicans also had their ambitions frustrated.  The congressional elections of 2000 were the closest in American history, resulting in a 50-50 tie in the Senate and a slim Republican majority of five seats in the House of Representatives.  The Constitution mandates that when votes in the Senate are tied, the vice president votes to break the tie.  Since the new vice president was Bush’s running mate Dick Cheney, the Republicans thought they had finally won party control of the national government for the first time in 48 years.  But a few months into the Bush presidency, moderate Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords broke with the Republican party and became an independent, giving the Democrats a 50-49 majority in the Senate.  It was not until the midterm election of 2002 that the Republicans were able to put together a lasting party government.
 

IV. The Changing Regional Bases of Parties

Another significant change in the American party system in the past half century is the changing regional bases of the parties. (Speel, Nardulli, Shea)  From the beginning of organized political parties, the Democratic party had been based in the American South.  From its inception in the 1850s, the Republican party had been based in the North and West.  For a hundred years this regional conflict was the core of American politics.  However, since the 1960s, this pattern has been changing dramatically.  This regional shift can be highlighted by comparing the two year Republican majority in the House of Representatives won in 1952 with the current Republican majority in the House. (see maps below)  The decline of the Democratic party has been largely the loss of its base in the formerly “solid” South.  In the current regional pattern, the Republicans are now the majority party in the South, adding it to their base in the lightly populated Mountain and Plains states.  However, Republican gains in the South have been partially offset by Democratic gains in the rest of the country.  The Democrats are now strongest in the Northeast and the West Coast, and better able to compete in the Midwest.

 

This trend continued in the 2002 midterms.  While the results are complicated by redistricting since the 2000 election, the Republicans picked up 8 House seats in the South, but only broke even in the rest of the country.

V. Explaining the Anomalous Outcome of the 2002 Election

Defying the historical pattern George W. Bush did not lose seats in the 2002 midterm—he gained them.  To see how requires analysis of the issues that dominated the 2002 election.

While there are always a myriad of factors that affect any election, there were two issues that dominated the 2002 election—reaction to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, and the state of the economy.  It is difficult to underestimate the effect of September 11 on the American people.  Unlike most nations of the world, the U. S. had been shielded from attack by its geographic isolation for more than a century.  From the Civil War until the middle of the 20th century America’s borders were literally inviolable.  Americans were shocked when Pearl Harbor was bombed in World War II, but even that was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean far from the continental mainland.  Part of the virulence of the early Cold War was due to the American perception that its homeland was vulnerable to Soviet missile and bomber attack.  But the Cold War never became a direct conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, so again, Americans were spared the reality of war on their home territory.  For a century and a half, for Americans war was something that happened overseas, far away from the home front.

Any time there is war or a major foreign policy crisis, there is a ‘rally around the flag” effect that causes a surge in presidential popularity.  The most recent example of this was when the first President Bush’s popularity shot up to nearly 80% during the Persian Gulf War.  The current President Bush’s approval ratings also skyrocketed from 59% in August 2001 to 82-88% in the weeks following the September 11 attack.  The rally around the flag effect can be relatively short-lived.  After the Gulf War the first President Bush’s popularity dropped steadily and just two years later he was denied reelection.

However, the rally around the flag effect can be longer lasting, as seems to be the case with the current Bush presidency.  Even though voters liked George W. Bush as a person enough to elect him president, grave doubts remained among many voters about his qualifications for the job, particularly his knowledge of the world outside the U.S.  But in the wake of September 11, Bush struck just the right note of determined leadership and calm reassurance.  His administration has prolonged the sense of urgent crisis with the war in Afghanistan, domestic vigilance against terrorism, and the looming conflict with Iraq.  Yet simultaneously Bush has seemed in charge of events, decisive in his actions at home and abroad.

Yet the one discordant note that rang loud and clear in the early Bush presidency was the poor state of the American economy.  The American economy surged for a record long expansion during the Clinton presidency but slumped to near recessionary levels early in the Bush presidency and has hung there since.  Millions of Americans saw their savings shrink or even disappear as the stock market crashed, erasing nearly a trillion dollars from America’s net worth.  Scandals on Wall Street seemed unending, from Enron to Adelphi Communications to World Com, further shaking Americans’ confidence in the market.  Projected record government surpluses became large deficits anticipated to stretch far into the future.  The speculative fever of the late 1990s that caused the recent fall in markets was not Bush’s fault, but sitting presidents get the credit when the economy prospers and the blame when the economy stumbles.  With its close ties to transnational business and ideological faith in deregulation of markets, the Bush administration was particularly poorly suited to cope with corporate corruption and the crisis of confidence.

Usually in an election where one party is perceived as strong on domestic issues and the other party is has the advantage in foreign policy, domestic policy strength is the trump card.  Perhaps the clearest example of this was the midterm of 1958 when Eisenhower and his foreign policies were hugely popular but the economy was mired in a recession.  Ike’s Republicans lost 47 seats in the House and 13 seats in the Senate.  In 1974 the popular detente policies of initiated by Nixon and followed by his successor Ford could not overcome the effect of the Watergate scandal as the Republicans lost 43 seats in the House and 3 seats in the Senate.  In 1982 a recession cost Reagan’s Republicans 26 seats in the House.  And, of course, despite the huge surge in his popularity during the Gulf War, the first President Bush failed to win reelection because of a poor economy.

So how did the current Bush administration emerge victorious despite the dismal state of the economy?  The midterm of 2002 seems to show that the relationship between domestic issues and foreign policy issues varies depending on the magnitude of the foreign policy crisis.  September 11 was a historically anomalous shock to Americans, comparable in magnitude to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in World War II, so even though more than a year had passed, it still dominated the 2002 election.
 

VI. The Historic Policy Implications of Midterm Elections

In the historically typical midterm in which the president’s party loses seats in Congress, the policy effect is usually to push the president more toward the political center.

The policy effects of small changes in seats in Congress should not be overestimated.  American political parties are not disciplined like parties in a parliamentary system.  Members of the opposition party often support the president on particular issues, and members of his own party often defect when they disagree with the president.  Furthermore, in the Senate there is nearly unlimited debate.  60 votes are needed to cut off filibusters, delaying tactics used to block legislation.  Long filibusters are a risky strategy, as Republicans found when they shut down the government in opposition to Bill Clinton’s budget.  The Republican Congress bore the brunt of public criticism, which helped Clinton and congressional Democrats in the 1996 election.  But filibusters or simply the threat of a filibuster can at times be quite effective, particularly at the end of a legislative session when controversial legislation that has been delayed is either approved or rejected.

However, when large numbers of seats in Congress are lost, a president feels the pressure to move toward the political center, particularly if he is running for reelection.  Recent presidents who felt this effect were Bill Clinton in 1994, Ronald Reagan in both 1982 and 1986, and Jimmy Carter in 1978.

At the beginning of 1994 Democrat Bill Clinton introduced as his number one domestic priority a national health care plan which would have guaranteed every American access to health insurance.  This was the one major New Deal style domestic program initiative of the Clinton presidency.  However, the Clinton health care plan was not passed by Congress.  After the 1994 midterm debacle, the Clinton White House never again introduced major legislation to expand the role of the national government.  Instead Clinton pursued the historic Republican goal of welfare reform, and ended up endorsing legislation that sought to dramatically restrict welfare benefits.

 


POLICY EFFECT OF MIDTERMS WITH BIG LOSSES FOR PRESIDENT


Year
President
House
Senate
Policy Effect
1994
Clinton (D)
-54

Democrats lost control

-10

Democrats lost control

Clinton abandoned attempts to expand health care programs.  Agreed to restrictive welfare reform.
1986
Reagan (R)
-6
-7

Republicans lost control

Conservative appointment to Supreme Court rejected.  Reagan forced to name moderates to the judiciary.
1982
Reagan (R)
-25

Republicans lost ideological control

0
Reagan lost control of budgetary policy to Democrats and moderate Republicans in Congress.
1978
Carter (D)
-16
-3
Carter fired prominent liberals from Cabinet, appointed moderates. Carter adopted harder line on foreign policy.  SALT II Treaty never ratified.

 
The conservative Republican Reagan administration suffered two midterm losses, both of which affected policy outcomes.  When Reagan was elected in 1980, the Republicans won control of the Senate for the first time in a quarter of a century.  Although Democrats retained a majority in the House, a caucus of conservative, southern Democrats announced their intention to support Reagan on key issues of domestic policy, thus giving the Republicans an ideological majority in the House as well.  The most important policy initiative of Reagan’s first year was his budget plan, often called Reaganomics, which featured large-scale tax cuts, major cuts in domestic spending, and increases in military spending.  The Reagan budget plan passed the newly Republican Senate, and with the support of conservative Democrats, also passed the House.

However, in 1982 the country was in midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression, and the Republicans lost 26 House seats in the midterm election.  Democrats in the House regained the upper hand in domestic policy issues, and working with moderate Republicans in the Senate, took control of budgetary policy away from the conservatives in the Reagan administration.  House Democrats also used the power of the purse to deny the Reagan administration funds to effectively carry out its policy of overthrowing the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

The Reagan administration suffered another defeat in the midterm election of 1986, as Republicans lost control of the Senate.  The most important result of this turnaround was that Senate Democrats could use their constitutional power to confirm appointments to the judiciary to block the most conservative of Reagan’s court appointments.  Reagan’s nomination of very conservative Judge Robert Bork to fill a vacancy in the Supreme Court was subsequently defeated in the Senate.  Reagan was forced to name a more moderate judge to fill the vacancy, and steered away from other controversial appointments to the federal bench.

The policies of Democratic President Jimmy Carter were also dramatically affected by midterm losses in Congress.  After losing 16 House seats and 3 Senate seats in the 1978 midterm, Carter undertook a major Cabinet reshuffle, firing prominent liberals and replacing them with moderates.  For the rest of his term Carter pursued an increasingly hard-line foreign policy.  National security adviser Bzrezinski, the top hawk in the Carter team, became more prominent, often overshadowing Secretary of State Vance.  Republicans in the Senate, emboldened by Carter’s sagging political fortunes, refused to ratify the SALT II treaty negotiated by Carter.

 

VII. The Policy Implications of the 2002 Midterm

Historically, presidents lose seats in midterm elections which undermines their policy clout.  Since George Bush won seats, the logical conclusion is that he has gained policy clout.  The trickier questions are how much has the president been strengthened, how long will this effect last, and in what policy areas will this new power be felt.

Certainly the psychological effect of winning the midterm election by running largely on the president’s response to September 11 gives the Republicans greater freedom of action in foreign policy.  The president’s expansive “war on terror” is clearly popular, at least as long as casualties are low.  The American Constitution gives the president greater power in foreign policy, but it also gives Congress a considerable role.  In the 2002 election most Democrats chose not to oppose Bush’s hard-line terrorism war, preferring to campaign on economic issues.  After Bush’s midterm success, the Democrats in Congress are even less inclined to resist his popular hard-line policies.  Even if they choose to contest certain aspects of Bush’s foreign policy, they no longer have the numbers in the Senate to outvote him.  The self-restraint of the Democrats may change if there are large-scale American casualties overseas or some other kind of foreign policy disaster.  The budding peace movement could also flower if war with Iraq is long and/or costly.  But Bush enters 2003 with few immediate domestic constraints on his foreign policy.

However, even if no serious domestic opposition emerges, the primary constraints on Bush’s foreign policy are likely to be international in scope.  While the UN Security Council united to demand Iraq submit to a new coercive inspections regime, Russia, China, and even NATO allies France and Germany have expressed grave doubts about military action in Iraq.  Most Arab nations and other Muslim powers in the Middle East and around the world are also opposed to war against Iraq, fearing popular uprisings that could threaten their regimes.  The U.S. still has many diplomatic cards to play, but the U.S. may eventually face two stark alternatives in its conflict with Iraq—attack Iraq against the expressed desire of most of other great powers and most of the Islamic world or be satisfied with ambiguous results from the UN inspection regime.  Russia and China would be even more directly threatened by U.S. military action against another member of Bush’s “axis of evil,” North Korea.  So the free hand Bush currently enjoys at home must be carefully played if Bush hopes to achieve his stated policy objectives without undermining U.S. global leadership.

In domestic policy, both the psychological boost of winning the midterm and the more practical effect of gaining Republican control of the Senate clearly help the Bush administration’s legislative agenda.  But given the undisciplined nature of American parties, on most issues the consequences will likely be less than one might think.  Since the disappearance of its liberal wing, congressional Republicans have been more cohesive on domestic issues than at any time since the early New Deal.  Particularly in the early Reagan and George W. Bush presidencies, Republicans have been united enough to turn small majorities or even large minorities into winning coalitions on economic policy, particularly budget and tax policy.  Yet in the later Reagan years moderate Republicans broke with the White House and worked with centrist Democrats to control budget and tax policy.  George W. Bush enjoys greater numbers in the House than even Reagan, but if the economy continues to falter, Republican cohesion in the House will be sorely tested.

Furthermore, Bush’s new majority falls far short of the 60 votes needed to overcome filibusters and other delaying tactics if the opposition is determined enough to shut down Senate business until legislation they oppose is dropped.  The overuse of delaying tactics can backfire, as the Republicans found out when they used sustained filibusters to shut down the government to challenge Bill Clinton’s budgets in 1995 and 1996.  But even the threat of a filibuster gives Democrats in the Senate greater power than their minority status might suggest.

Winning control of the Senate does help the administration in one very important way.  One of the president’s key powers is shared with the Senate—the power of appointment of top government officials.  Presidential appointments of federal judges and high level executives must be approved by majority vote in the Senate.  Since the presidency of Richard Nixon, Republicans have sought to make the federal judiciary more conservative in social and economic policy by selecting ideologically conservative judges.  Judges have great power in the American system because they determine the constitutionality of legislative and executive actions.  In issues of crime and civil liberties, they largely set the standards by which police and other government agencies can operate.  By deciding the standards for affirmative action, judges also have great power in issues of discrimination based on race, gender, sexual preference, etc.  Judges even have considerable power in the economic sphere, demonstrated most recently in judicial decisions in the Microsoft anti-trust case.

During Nixon’s term Democrats controlled the Senate and rejected openly segregationist judicial nominations.  Through most of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Republicans had control of the Senate and approved his highly conservative judicial nominations.  But in 1986 the Democrats regained control and forced Reagan and his successor the first Bush to appoint more moderate judges.  Democrats exercised the same check on in the first two years of the second Bush’s administration.  Now that restraint is gone and it can be expected that Bush will make much more conservative appointments to the courts.  Although historically the Senate is more likely to defer to presidential judgment on nominations to executive position, Bush’s hand is also strengthened in choosing more conservative ideologues to fill key positions in his administration, which eventually could move the Bush presidency to the right.

 
 

VIII. The 2002 Midterm and the 2004 Election

Looking forward to the 2004 race, George Bush looks strong.  His popularity is high and he is likely to get another surge of patriotic support if the war of words with Iraq becomes an actual shooting war.  If the pundits prove correct and war with Iraq is short and decisive, Bush will be running as a strong leader who transmuted the disaster of September 11 into a new expression of American global power.

But two years is a lifetime in politics.  Bush’s father was riding high with unheard of 80% approval ratings after the first Gulf War.  Yet the temporary surge of popularity faded as the economy soured, and the elder Bush was defeated in his reelection bid.  Unpredictable events have huge impact on presidential politics.  Fairly or unfairly, presidents get the credit when things go well, but they get the blame when things go badly.  No one knows where the economy will be in November 2004.  No one knows for sure how well a new war with Iraq might go or what new crises lurk in the Middle East or in other regions of the world.  New terror attacks on U.S. soil are possible, and no one knows if Bush would be blamed for not responding effectively since September 11 or whether people would once again rally around the president.

The history of regular pendulum swings in American elections leads to one prediction.  Ironically, the 2002 midterm makes President Bush a bit more vulnerable in 2004, because he and his party bear greater responsibility for the state of the nation.  The fact that the Republicans now enjoy party government makes it harder for them to blame the Democrats for crises or problems that emerge in the next two years.  Given the consistent pattern of divided government over the past 24 years, it seems unlikely that the Republicans will be able to hold on to the presidency and both houses of Congress in 2004.  If they did, that would make the 2004 election a truly major event in the history of the American party system.
 
 

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