“Parties like to develop a positive agenda to prepare for their next turn at governing, and this is a good and useful exercise,” noted Larry Sabato, who heads the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “But in midterm elections, the voters are usually just reacting to the incumbent president—and almost always negatively.”
Sabato ran through a litany of midterm outcomes from the past six decades, including Democratic wins in 1958 (“Ike’s poor economy”), 1974 (“anti-Watergate, anti-Nixon pardon”), and 1982 (“Reagan’s poor economy”), and Republican wins in 1966 (“anti-Vietnam War, Great Society backlash”), 1994 (“Clinton’s poor economy and controversies”), and 2010 (“anti-Obamacare, continuing poor economy”). “In every case, for each party,” said Sabato, “victory wasn’t delivered on account of a terrific positive platform but because of a negative reaction to the policies and actions of the incumbent president and/or Congress.”
If anything, this trend has gathered steam in recent years as congressional races have grown ever more nationalized. Certainly, Obama-era Republicans offered a master class in the political efficacy of being “anti.” The current House majority was explicitly built on fear and loathing of the 44th president. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, elevated legislative obstructionism to high art, most vividly showcased by his nearly year-long refusal to consider Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.