The Midterm Effect: Why The Incumbent President’s Party Tends to Struggle

By Arwen O’Brien, Marketing Editor

Read this article and more in our 2022 election edition, coming October 28!

Every two years voters across the country get the opportunity to indicate their approval or disapproval of their current president through the midterm elections. But the inhabitants of the White House won’t change, so why should we care? 

Simply put, the outcome of a single election season can reshape the course of this country’s future, including the outcome of the midterm elections. While current president Joe Biden is not on the midterm ballot, voters have the power and opportunity to make major changes to Congress. The election cycle goes as follows for the two chambers of Congress: every seat in the House of Representatives is up for election every two years, while one third of the seats in the Senate are up for grabs, as senators serve six-year terms. In this election season, the Democratic Party is extremely vulnerable to losing control of Congress. Only five seats need to be flipped in the House of Representatives for a Republican majority in the House, and with the Senate, even with the vice president having the tie-breaking vote, they only need to take one Democratic seat. 

Historically, the incumbent president’s party tends to lose seats in the House of Representatives during the midterms. An analysis done on this trend showed that “in the 22 midterm elections from 1934 -2018, the President’s party has averaged a loss of 28 House seats and four Senate seats” (Woolley 2022). By comparison, in the 2010 midterm elections former President Obama lost 63 seats, while in the 2018 midterm elections former President Trump lost 41 seats. In both cases, control over the House went into the hands of the opposing party (Oliphant and Lange 2022). One key factor in determining how many seats will flip is the popularity of the sitting president—and Biden is not doing well. One poll done by The Washington Post-ABC News found that “53 percent of Americans [are] disapproving of the job he’s doing. Additionally, 51 percent of independent voters say they want Republicans in charge of Congress next year to act as a check on Biden” (Phillips 2022). An unpopular president tends to translate into a strong numberof seats lost. 

  Regardless of these figures, the Democratic Party losing control over Congress is not completely guaranteed. There have been instances in the past where presidents have come out of the midterms with their power unscathed, maintaining control of Congress or even expanding their majorities. Jimmy Carter saw some seats go but the Democrats still managed to maintain control of Congress after the 1978 midterms, where they lost 3 seats in the Senate and 11 in the House—but not enough to experience a shift in power (NPR 2009). A special case is the result of the 2002 midterms during George W. Bush’s presidency. His Republican party gained in both the Senate and the House, winning two and six seats respectively (NPR 2009). The September 11 attacks were still fresh in people’s minds during this midterm election, so voters were motivated to rally behind the president’s party. There is a chance that we could see the Democratic Party maintain control of Congress as recent events have helped them gain certain popularity among Americans. Both the end of national abortion protections and the increase of election-denying Republican candidates have given the Democratic Party a boost which could help them protect these crucial seats in the midterms. 

Let’s suppose that as a result of these midterms the Democratic Party loses its majority and control in Congress—what effects will this have on Biden and the country? 

It is without a doubt that Biden’s future career as president will be tarnished. As shown above, his approval ratings as president are poor. The programs that Biden is in the process of trying to enact (such as increased climate change initiatives, stricter gun control, investment in infrastructure, and lowering child poverty levels) will come to a halt as the newly Republican-controlled Congress will block these programs from being enacted. The Republican Party has also promised to use their power in congressional oversight to investigate and potentially obstruct the president and his party. The Republican Party plans on holding hearings on Hunter Biden, the president’s son, and his relations with China, as well as the “Biden administration’s immigration policies, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the origins of the coronavirus pandemic” (Zurcher 2022). The Republican Party gaining control of Congress through the midterms will allow for investigation of the current president in political retaliation for the extensive investigations on Trump’s role in the January 6 Capitol riot. With no new programs getting passed and Biden’s already weak reputation, we may see a new Democratic candidate campaign against Biden in the 2024 presidential elections. 

A major change we can expect to see if the Republican party retakes control of Congress is restrictions on abortion rights. After the overturning of Roe v. Wade this past June, the Democratic party has promised to “codify into federal law abortion rights that were protected by the Supreme Court’s Roe vs Wade decision” (Zurcher 2022). The Republican Party plans to challenge this initiative being made in Congress if they retake the majority. An idea has been proposed for a country-wide and non-negotiable ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Such a national plan would affect Republican and Democrat-run states alike. This ban would have the power to “supersede existing protections in Democratic-run states like California, Illinois and New York” (Zurcher 2022). Changes in abortion protections could also be seen in individual states (e.g Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Michigan) where gubernatorial and legislative races are occurring. The outcome of these elections could alter the legality regarding abortion rights in these states as well. 

On top of furthering the limits on national abortion rights, the Republican Party has released their plans of what they will attempt to pass if they win a majority. This includes the desire to “spend more money on border security, repeal new funding for the Internal Revenue Service, and likely expand domestic oil and natural gas drilling” (Phillips 2022). Furthermore, because this is the first federal election since the January 6 Capitol riot, these midterms will be especially interesting. If the Republican Party does successfully retake the majority of Congress, we could assess that such a perilous event against our democratic system does not have a big enough detrimental effect on the very party whose followers were responsible for the event. The Republican Party taking control of Congress after these midterms despite such a powerfully negative event reflecting on their party could be predictive of the fate of American democracy.

Arwen O’Brien, Marketing Editor, is a philosophy, politics, and law major. She works for the Student Association at Binghamton and is the Membership Communications Chair for Binghamton’s Ski and Snowboard Club. Arwen is a founding member of the Happy Medium Executive Editing Team, serving as its first marketing editor. Arwen grew up in Argentina and England but now lives in Westchester, NY. She is minoring in and is fluent in Spanish.


“Midterm Elections And First-Term Presidents.” 2009. NPR, November 1.

Oliphant, James and Lange, Jason. 2022. “Explainer: What’s at stake in the 2022 U.S. congressional elections.” Reuters, September 7.

Phillips, Amber. 2022. “What are midterm elections and why are they important?” The Washington Post, October 3.

Woolley, John T. 2022. “The 2022 Midterm Elections: What the Historical Data Suggest.” The American Presidency Project, August 30.

Zurcher, Anthony. 2022. “US midterm elections: Why are they so important?” BBC News, October 12.