After polls close tonight, the political class will shift from forecasting the election to analyzing the results. Conservatives will point to likely Republican gains in both Houses of Congress–and what looks to be a likely takeover of the Senate–as evidence of the voters rejecting President Obama and his agenda. Democrats predictably will respond by downplaying the probable Republican victory, pointing at close margins in individual Senate races and arguing that Republican gains came mostly from red states. Supporters of the Clintons will find a way to point to the influence of Bill and Hillary Clinton on a few races and argue that the Obama administration is done and it is now time to rally around Hillary 2016.
One less dramatic, and reasonably boring, explanation will receive scant attention; in the sixth year of a presidency, the President’s party almost always does very poorly. The exception: 1998, during the sixth year of Bill Clinton’s presidency, when many voters punished the G.O.P. for overreaching during the Lewinsky scandal. The Democratic Party gained five seats in the House of Representatives and held steady in the Senate.
However, in 2006 the Republicans suffered from Bush fatigue, losing 30 House and six Senate seats; in 1986 Republicans lost five House and eight Senate seats; in 1974, in the middle of the Watergate period, they lost 48 House and four Senate seats; and in 1958, when Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration was losing steam, they lost 48 House and 13 Senate seats. Democrats have been similarly unsuccessful in their sixth year in the White House, other than in 1998. In 1966, in the sixth year of the Kennedy-Johnson period they lost 48 House and three Senate seats. In 1950, the last midterm of Harry Truman’s nearly eight years in office, they lost 28 House and five Senate seats.
Most projections for this year forecast the Democrats losing about nine seats in the House and about five or six in the Senate. If these forecasts prove right, it will be a clear defeat for the Democrats, but the Republicans will not be able to claim anything approaching an historic victory. Unless something very unforeseen happens tonight, this will be a relatively mild defeat for a President in his second midterm. It will still, however, be a defeat. Supporters of President Obama can argue, accurately, that this was not as bad as defeats handed to George W. Bush, Richard Nixon or Dwight Eisenhower, but that will not make this a victory for Mr. Obama.
Tonight’s election will be a formal turning point for the Obama presidency. Once the new Congress is seated in 2015, Mr. Obama will be unable to pass any major legislation. Moreover, the President’s lame duck status will be formalized and attention will turn to the 2016 election. As several Republicans in the Senate including Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio will likely vie for their party’s presidential nomination, that dysfunctional body may become even more characterized by political posturing than lawmaking. The likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, will continue to distance herself from the President while finding a way to reaffirm her commitment to the core principles of her party, whatever those might be.
All of this, however, is what usually happens during a midterm election in the sixth year of a presidency. An important part of tonight’s story is that of continuity. It is natural to focus on specific races, the presence of a strong independent candidate instead of a Democrat in Kansas, or specific issues, such as Ebola or ISIS, to explain this election, but another, less dramatic one might be more valuable. This is just a normal election given where we are in the presidential cycle. The latter explanation should be a caution for all sides against reading too much into what happens tonight.
Lincoln Mitchell is the national political correspondent for the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.