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Dramatic Off-Year Elections in Recent American Political History

Editor's Note: This article was published on November 5, 2002.

Question. When was the last time a president was as popular during the off-year elections as President Bush is today and in a position to help his party win the Congress? The answer: 1962. John Kennedy was president; 75 percent of Americans approved of his presidency, in part because of his handling of the October Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy did not openly campaign for fellow Democrats; he indicated it would be unseemly to campaign while the country was facing nuclear catastrophe and delicate negotiations. His high ratings and the sense that the country was in peril rallied Americans to his side and led to limited losses in Congress. That November Democrats lost just five seats in the House of Representatives, while gaining two seats in the Senate. This was considered a victory. Traditionally, the party in power loses substanially in the off-year elections in Congress.

Since 1962 every president has faced significant opposition during the off-year elections. As is revealed below, only two presidents after Kennedy enjoyed high approval ratings in an off-year election--Reagan in 1986 and Clinton in 1998--and neither of them was able to capitalize on their impressive popularity, the lame-duck Reagan because there was already the sense that he was a figure of the past, Monica-infatuated Clinton because he was about to be impeached.


In 1964 Lyndon Johnson was elected president in what was then the greatest landslide in American history. Two years later his popularity was dropping as concerns grew over inflation and the Vietnam War. In the early spring of 1966 his approval had dropped to 56 percent, the lowest of his presidency at that point. By June his approval rating had dropped to 46 percent. A pollster asked voters whom they'd prefer in a match-up between LBJ and George Romney. The result was a near tie, LBJ receiving 51 percent to 49 percent for Romney. Fearful of being blamed for the loss of seats in Congress and uneasy playing a role as a partisan president, LBJ stayed off the hustings during the fall campaign. In the election Republicans won 47 seats in the House of Representatives and 3 in the Senate.


In 1968 Richard Nixon barely eked out victory in a three-way race against Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace. By 1970 he remained in danger of becoming a one-term president. Inflation was rising and the Vietnam War continued, with no end in sight. Nixon initially chose to remain above the battle, letting Vice President Spiro Agnew play the role of partisan henchman as Nixon had for Dwight Eisenhower in 1954. While Agnew attacked radiclibs--on Nixon's instructions--Nixon made a diplomatic tour of Europe. In October, as the polls suggested the Republicans were facing a bloodbath in November, Nixon changed course. He personally took to the campaign trail, raveling to twenty-three states, railing against liberals and antiwar demonstrators. A mob attacked him in San Jose. Nixon used the attack to arouse a backlash among the Silent Majority voters he had counted on in 1968. Determined to reshape American politics, he went after liberal senators, ending the careers of Albert Gore, Charles Goodell, and Joseph Tydings. Capitalizing on his power as commander in chief, he announced a peace initiative cynically designed to give people the false hope that the war was "coming to an end," as he told a crowd at one campaign stop. In the election Democrats gained nine seats in the House of Representatives and lost two in the Senate. Nixon publicly announced that he was satisfied that his campaigning had prevented a substantial Republican loss.


In 1972 Richard Nixon won a landslide victory against George McGovern, who won only the single state of Massachusetts. Two years later Nixon's administration unraveled after Watergate turned into a national crisis. In August Nixon resigned. That November the Democrats swept the elections across the country, bringing to power the so-called Watergate Freshman Class of 1974.


In 1976 Jimmy Carter became the first Deep South candidate to be elected president since the Civil War. By 1978, after a slow start, he finally won substantial victories in Congress, obtaining the passage of energy deregulation and a $20 billion tax cut. Liberals in the party were aghast at his conservative populist drift and openly began challenging him. The Black Caucus in Congress assailed the president for failing to push aggressively for the Humphrey-Hawkins bill, which provided that the federal government would be the employer of last resort. (The measure passed the House but was bottled up in the Senate.) Women were upset that he had not aggressively pushed for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which had passed Congress but was four states shy of approval. Millions of Americans remained frightened of inflation, which was rising rapidly. In September producer prices went up dramatically, reaching an annual rate of more 11 percent. In the last week in October Carter went on television to announce a new phase in his inflation-fighting program. He appointed Alfred Kahn as his inflation czar and announced he wanted to keep wage increases below 7 percent. He also committed the administration to deficit reduction, limiting the annual deficit to $30 billion. Democrats in Congress, fearful of spending cuts, opposed the deficit-reduction plan and so did Wall Street. Following Carter's speech the Dow dropped 10 percent. The dollar also dropped precipitously. Alarmed, Carter announced on November 1 that he was taking strong measures to bolster the dollar. Both the dollar and the Dow increased in value. The Democrats remained in control of Congress, but lost a substantial number of liberals. In the House of Representatives Republicans gained 14 seats, in the Senate 3.


In 1980 Ronald Reagan swept to power, defeating Jimmy Carter in a landslide that materialized just a few days before the election. Reagan brought in on his coattails a Republican Senate. The Iranian hostages were released and Reagan's tax plan was passed by Congress. Reagan dramatically pumped up military spending, which was already on the rise under Carter following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But the economy was souring. To whip inflation the president backed the Federal Reserve crackdown, which threw the country into the worst recession since the 1930s. Reagan's poll numbers declined dramatically, 43 percent approving of his job as president, 47 percent disapproving. In November Democrats gained 26 seats in the House but none in the Senate, which remained in Republican hands.


In 1984 President Reagan won reelection in a landslide. His approval ratings remained high going into the mid-term elections. In October 61 percent approved of his handling of the presidency, only 27 percent disapproved. Reagan campaigned for candidates across the country; it would be his final campaign. That October he signed the Tax Reform Act, which simplified the tax rules and did away with hundreds of special tax breaks. Nonetheless, in many ways he seemed to be over the hill; pundits spoke of him in the past tense. Democrats after years in the wilderness sensed an opportunity. That August the details about the Iran Initiative in which arms were sold to Iran first became known. In November Democrats gained 7 seats in the House and won 8 seats in the Senate, retaking the control they had lost in 1980.

In December the floor fell from underneath the administration when Iran-Contra burst into the headlines. In December Reagan's approval rating plunged to 47 percent when the details of the administration's arms-for-hostages plan became front-page news.


In 1988 George Herbert Walker Bush was elected president; many considered his election the third term of Ronald Reagan. But he quickly squandered his popularity when he announced his support of a budget deal which led to one of the biggest tax increases in history, breaking his convention promise never to raise taxes. ("Read my lips.") As the economy soured Bush remained uninterested in domestic issues, preferring to focus on foreign affairs. That summer Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. During the fall Bush was preoccupied with assembling the coalition against Iraq. Republican Party official Ed Rollins counseled Republican candidates to distance themselves from the White House because of the firestorm over Bush's broken tax pledge. Bush campaigned for 62 Republicans in Congress; 35 lost. Overall, the Republicans lost 25 seats in the House and 10 in the Senate. (It was in 1990 that Paul Wellstone won election to the Senate.)


In 1992 Bill Clinton barely won the presidency in a three-way race with George Bush and Ross Perot. Many Republicans felt that the presidency had been stolen from them. Clinton got off to a slow start and never gained momentum prior to the mid-term elections, being sidetracked right from the first by a controversy about allowing gays into the military. Several high-profile cabinet nominations were withdrawn and then his single biggest domestic priority, reforming the health care system, went down to defeat in Congress. Republicans gained both houses of Congress for the first time since 1955 under the leadership of Newt Gingrich.


In 1996 Clinton won reelection as the economy began to soar. But in 1998 he was discovered to have had an affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. In September 1998 the Starr Report became public. On October 8 the House of Representatives voted to begin a formal impeachment inquiry. Democrats distanced themselves from Clinton during the fall campaign, preferring not be seen with a president whose morality had been impeached even if he had not yet been. His poll numbers remained astonishingly high, however, averaging 65 percent during the fall campaign. In December, following the surprise victory of the Democrats, his numbers increased to 73 percent, according to Gallup.