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The devastating history of midterm elections, for the party in the White House

U.S. President Ronald Reagan quiets a cheering crowd at a Republican rally in November 1986.
Douglas C. Pizac
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AP
U.S. President Ronald Reagan quiets a cheering crowd at a Republican rally in November 1986.

Updated November 8, 2022 at 6:26 AM ET

This story originally ran in 2014, and has been updated to include details from midterm races that have happened since then.

History tells us that midterm elections are bad — sometimes very bad — for the party that controls the White House.

On the campaign trail leading up to this Election Day, President Biden expressed optimism, telling reporters he thought his party could keep control of Congress — though polls suggest the White House may want to brace for what could be a rough night of ballot counting.

The worry for any president during the midterm is that the past may be prologue. Since 1946, the party out of power in the White House has gained an average of 28 House seats and two Senate seats in a president's first midterm. And when a president's approval rating is under water — as Biden's is — the trend is even sharper, according to data from the American Presidency Project at UC-Santa Barbara.

Here are some notable presidential midterm setbacks and disasters:

President Franklin D.Roosevelt identifies himself to the election board in Hyde Park, N.Y., in 1938. Republicans picked up a whopping 81 seats in the U.S. House that year.
/ AP
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AP
President Franklin D.Roosevelt identifies himself to the election board in Hyde Park, N.Y., in 1938. Republicans picked up a whopping 81 seats in the U.S. House that year.

1938: GOP makes gains in the House as voters worry about the economy and FDR's New Deal

On the eve of that year's midterm elections, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt urged the nation to pull together, as war loomed in Europe. His distinctive voice crackled on radio sets across the country.

"Remember that in these brave days in the affairs of the world, we need internal unity, national unity. For the sake of the nation, that is good advice."

But it was advice voters ignored. Republicans picked up 81 seats in the House of Representatives. One columnist noted that the GOP elephant had emerged from the doghouse it had occupied since the Depression.

1950: Truman suffers in a big night for Republicans

This newsreel from that year captured the mood — it was a record turnout for a midterm. President Harry Truman voiced optimism about his Democratic party's chances as he voted in his hometown of Independence, Mo. But the Republicans carried the day.

1986: Reagan campaigns for the GOP, but voters choose Democrats

President Ronald Reagan framed the coming midterms in his sixth year in office by describing the voters' overwhelming importance. The choice, he said, was "whether to hand the government back to the liberals or to move forward with the conservative agenda into the 1990s."

Voters went with the Democrats, taking control of the Senate away from the GOP.

1994: Clinton is drubbed by the 'Republican Revolution'

President Bill Clinton also felt the voters' wrath in his first midterm in 1994.

The GOP captured the House, Senate and the majority of governorships in what was dubbed the "Republican Revolution." This was the year of the "Contract with America," which Rep. Newt Gingrich and his party used to great effect.

Clinton reacted to the defeat saying "the American people believe, a majority of them ... that a divided government may work better than a united government."

The frustrated president then couldn't resist adding, "As you know I disagree with that."

1998 and 2002: The exceptions

There are occasional exceptions to the general rule that the White House takes a beating in midterms, including Clinton in 1998 and President George W. Bush in 2002.

President Bush holds a jersey from a local high school football team during a rally in LeMars, Iowa days before the 2006 midterm election.
Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Bush holds a jersey from a local high school football team during a rally in LeMars, Iowa days before the 2006 midterm election.

2006: Bush takes a 'thumpin' with discontent over Iraq

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush's approval ratings soared into the 90s. But by 2006, after years of a difficult and controversial war in Iraq, his ratings had tumbled to 40% and lower in some polls. The GOP lost 30 seats and control of the House as Nancy Pelosi became speaker. Democrats captured the Senate as well.

Bush put it this way in a news conference: "Look, this was a close election. If you look at [it] race by race it was close." But he then acknowledged, "the cumulative effect, however, was not close, it was a thumpin'."

Tea Party demonstrators in Staten Island, New York, April 15, 2009.
Emmanuel Dunand / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Tea Party demonstrators in Staten Island, New York, April 15, 2009.

2010: Enter the Tea Party and a revitalized GOP

This was President Barack Obama's first midterm test. The newly prominent Tea Party and a GOP pushback after the passage of Obamacare resulted in a change of course by voters. Republican gains were huge. Democrats lost the House.

"Some election nights are more fun than others; some are exhilarating; some are humbling," Obama said in what was a huge understatement for the man who had celebrated his own historic election two years earlier. This one, he said, was a "shellacking."

President Barack Obama at a Democratic campaign rally at Wayne State University in Detroit on Nov. 1, 2014.
Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Barack Obama at a Democratic campaign rally at Wayne State University in Detroit on Nov. 1, 2014.

2014: A Republican wave sweeps into Congress

Republicans flipped the U.S. Senate, expanded their advantage in the House and seized several key Governor's offices from their Democratic hold. The results put a cap on Obama's ambitions for the rest of his time in office.

"The American people sent a message, one that they've sent for several elections now," Obama told reporters after his party's losses. "They want us to get the job done. All of us in both parties have a responsibility to address that sentiment."

President Donald Trump at a tumultuous press conference the day after the midterm elections on Nov. 7, 2018
Al Drago / Getty Images
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Getty Images
President Donald Trump at a tumultuous press conference the day after the midterm elections on Nov. 7, 2018

2018: Republicans lose the House, Trump blames the candidates

Democrats made the election about President Donald Trump, who campaigned hard for his party, but saw the GOP lose control of the House. In districts where Republicans tried to distance themselves from Trump because of his unpopularity — such as then-Utah Rep. Mia Love — Trump blamed the candidates for their own demise. "Mia Love gave me no love," he told reporters. "And she lost. Too bad. Sorry about that, Mia."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
Juma Sei
Juma Sei is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow at NPR. He is a Sierra Leonean-American from Portland, Oregon, and a 2022 graduate of Yale College.