How Bad Inflation Can Be For Democrats, Historically


Democrats are set to lose the House next week, and their Senate majority is also increasingly in jeopardy – with handicappers putting the odds of a GOP takeover at just over 50-50.

But the idea that either battle might be close is quite remarkable, historically speaking. And it’s not just because the president‘s party loses the vast majority of the midterm elections. It’s arguably even more remarkable because of inflation, which may well prove the Democrats’ loss.

We’ve already gone through the presidential party numbers and midterm results. Over the past 100 years, the opposition party has won Senate seats in 19 of 25 midterm elections. And they won House seats in 22 of the 25.

Given that Republicans only need to win one Senate seat and a handful of House seats to win back majorities, Democrats who save either would beat history pretty big. .

The odds are so inherently stacked, in fact, that the president’s party hasn’t won more than nine House seats midterm since the Civil War. And he hasn’t won more than two Senate seats in an election since 1934. It’s a very tough luge.

But perhaps the biggest reason 2022 luge is tough is inflation.

Significant spikes in inflation are relatively infrequent in the United States. But when they came, they were pretty bad for the incumbent president’s party.

Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats lost ground in the 1918 and 1920 elections when the annual inflation rate soared in the mid-teens – more than 80 House seats and 16 Senate seats, between those two elections . They also lost the White House in 1920 by a whopping 26 percentage points – still the biggest popular vote landslide of the past 200 years.

In 1942, inflation again soared to double digits, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Democrats lost 44 House seats and nine Senate seats. When it rose again in 1946 (above 18%), the party lost 55 seats in the House and 12 seats in the Senate.

The combined impact: Republicans controlled 246 seats in the House. That’s just one seat short of their largest House majority since the Great Depression.

The other elections where inflation became a major problem began in 1974.

That year, 11% inflation helped opposition Democrats win 48 House seats and four Senate seats. A smaller spike (less than 8%) in 1978 helped opposition Republicans win a more modest 15 House seats and three Senate seats. But when it lagged and rose again in 1980, Republicans won another 35 House seats and 12 Senate seats and won back the presidency – with Ronald Reagan beating Jimmy Carter by another huge margin: 18 points.

As with the inflation spikes of the late 1910s and 1940s, we were suddenly at a high point for the opposition party. Republicans did not regain control of the House, but the 53 Senate seats they controlled were their party’s most since the start of the Great Depression.

In total, the five inflation-colored midterms detailed above represent three of the eight biggest changes in the House over the past 100 years and two of the five biggest changes in the Senate.

The big caveat here is that many of these elections took place a long time ago. Inflation has been such a big story this year in part because it’s so unfamiliar to us; it has been more than four decades since we have seen such a spike in inflation. And our policy changes over time. The polarization is strong, which means that it is more difficult to gain a large number of seats, even when the environment leans strongly in that direction.

There’s also the fact that the current inflation spike is a little lower than most of the examples detailed above. We’re not talking about teenage inflation, like in the late 1910s, 1940s, and 1970s.

But we’re talking about a level of inflation that’s foreign to more than half of Americans, who weren’t born before this previous wave, and is perhaps more shocking because of it. And aside from job losses and a stock market crash, inflation is perhaps the most easily recognizable economic indicator for ordinary people.

At the very least, the combination of historically bad midterms for the presidential party and high inflation is very bad for President Biden and the Democrats. If they have a saving grace, it’s that Republicans have fielded candidates in major Senate races that voters don’t like, and the labor market remains fairly strong despite the rate of inflation. That may make it harder for voters to write off Democrats altogether.

But if they do, history tells us that shouldn’t be surprising.

About Therese Williams

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