Midterms Spell Trouble, But ‘Itch’ Theory Is A Real Head-Scratcher

Stuart Rothenberg September 15, 2005 · 9:24 PM EDT

Over the next year, as we move toward the 2006 elections, we are likely to hear more and more talk of the so-called six-year itch – the historical “trend” that has meant big losses for the president’s party six years into his presidency.

That’s a pity, since the six-year itch is little more than a figment of the imagination that could overshadow a real, though less flashy, midterm trend that actually does favor the party not in control of the White House.

The idea of a six-year itch is often credited to author Kevin Phillips, who long ago traded political analysis for a soapbox.

“Over the last half century,” wrote Phillips in a 1984 Christian Science Monitor opinion piece, “U.S. voters have invariably found themselves beginning to sour on administrations after six years.” He went on to note that in these six-year itch elections (he attributed the term to unidentified “analysts”), “the party in the White House has lost heavily in both houses of Congress.”

In the piece, Phillips noted four elections falling on the second midterm of a two-term presidency: 1938 (Franklin D. Roosevelt), 1958 (Dwight Eisenhower), 1966 (John Kennedy/Lyndon Johnson) and 1974 (Richard Nixon/Gerald Ford). The average loss for the president’s party in those four elections was 53 House seats and seven Senate seats, huge numbers when compared to almost any election.

Phillips, of course, sidestepped the fact that the 1966 and 1974 midterm elections were not true second midterms in a two-term presidency, since neither Johnson nor Ford had served anything close to six years in the White House when those elections occurred.

But even if I accept Phillips’ list, I have a hard time swallowing the view that four cases make a trend, particularly when various cycle-specific factors seem to explain the 1938, 1958, 1966 and 1974 results rather easily.

Two of these six-year-itch elections (1938 and 1966) were rebound elections, returning the House of Representatives to “normal” partisan levels after one party had achieved abnormally large gains.

In 1964, for example, Democrats made huge gains as Republicans were buried in the Goldwater landslide. Two years later, the GOP rallied for a big win, taking back normally Republican seats that the party had lost because of the aberrant 1964 election outcome. The 1966 results were more a reaction to 1964 than to voters “souring” on the Kennedy-Johnson administrations.

The 1974 Democratic wave also didn’t develop because voters “soured” on an administration after six years. It occurred, instead, because of the public’s reaction to the Watergate scandal.

The 1958 results, which resulted in major gains for the Democrats, can largely be credited to a farm crisis that hurt GOP candidates in the party’s Midwestern base. I suppose this could constitute “souring,” but it followed from specific events, not because of a general fatigue with the president and his party.

Of course, one could argue that, for whatever reasons, presidents don’t perform well after they are re-elected to a second term, and this leads to public discontent with the president’s party. But even if that is the case, the election results follow from events and circumstances, not some inevitable “souring.”

Anyone who still believes in the six-year itch must explain what happened in 1998, the last-second midterm election of a two-term presidency. The iron law of the six-year itch took a beating that year when, with Bill Clinton (D) in the White House, Democrats gained five seats in the House and there was no change in the Senate.

There are reasons why Republicans didn’t make “itch” gains that year, including a strong economy. And there are reasons why Republicans lost only five House seats in the previous “itch” election, in 1986, when Republican Ronald Reagan was president: a good economy and the fact that since the Republicans went into the election holding only182 House seats, they didn’t have many marginal districts to lose.

And that’s the point. Elections turn on a number of factors, including vulnerability, candidate recruitment and fundraising, issues, circumstances and breaking news – not an invisible hand that manipulates voters six years into a presidency.

So forget the six-year itch, and instead keep an eye on the Midterm Trend, which refers to a tendency over time, not an iron law of politics. The Trend starts where the six-year itch does (by accepting the fact that midterm elections provide critics of any sitting president with an opportunity to express anger or disappointment), but never suggests inevitability.

All you need to know – and everyone reading this column almost certainly already knows it — is that the president’s party often suffers defeats during midterm elections. We aren’t dealing with a handful of cases here. The midterm trend is based on 36 cases going back to the election of 1862.

In all but four of those elections, the president’s party lost House seats. That is a statistical trend, which includes exceptions but is based on enough cases to keep in mind as you watch the 2006 House and Senate campaigns.