Historical perspective gives insight into likely outcome of elections

Dolph Briscoe IV

Another election season is upon us. On Nov. 4, Americans will go to the polls to cast ballots for U.S. senators and representatives. Early voting in the Lone Star State begins Oct. 20, and Texans will also elect a new governor, lieutenant governor and host of other state officials. What can we expect in these upcoming elections? Looking back at similar elections in the past can provide us with clues as to what the country and state might decide on Election Day.

First, let us examine the national political scene. These contests are called “midterm” or “off-year” elections because they are taking place during the middle of a presidential term. This year is the sixth year of President Barack Obama’s administration. Historically, the party that controls the White House usually suffers losses in midterm elections. Voters often like to have a check on the party in power and can also use midterm elections to voice displeasure with the president’s policies. This happened most recently in 2010, when Republicans captured a majority of seats in the House of Representatives and won a multitude of contests down the ballot as voters expressed concern with President Obama’s handling of the economy and signing of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.

Recent elections in the sixth year of a presidency typically benefit the party out of power. In 1986, Democrats won control of the Senate and retained a strong majority in the House during the second term of Republican President Ronald Reagan. In 2006, Democrats secured both houses of Congress for the first time in more than a decade as voters expressed displeasure with President George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq War and response to Hurricane Katrina. The 1998 midterms proved an exception, however, as Democrats actually gained seats in the House of Representatives, largely because of voter opposition to Republicans’ impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

This year looks more likely to be a repeat of 1986 and 2006, rather than 1998. President Obama holds an approval rating percentage in the low forties, which poses difficulties for Democratic candidates this year. Americans are concerned about the administration’s handling of a plethora of issues. A slow economic recovery and the inability to pass immigration reform pose problems on the domestic front, while abroad the crisis in Iraq with ISIS threatens another war for the U.S. in the Middle East. One positive for Democrats is that the Republican Party possesses even lower approval numbers than the president. While both parties hold blame for the political gridlock traumatizing Washington, Republicans in the House of Representatives have been especially intransigent, from sparking a government shutdown last fall to refusing to pass any type of immigration reform proposal. What the Republican Party has in its favor this year, though, is voter turnout and political maps. Historically, fewer people vote in midterm than presidential elections, and these voters tend to be older and more conservative. The Republican Party benefits from gerrymandered districts drawn after its impressive victories in 2010 that make it virtually impossible for Democrats to take the House of Representatives until the next census. The real political battle will be for control of the U.S. Senate, currently held by Democrats with a 55 to 45 majority. Democrats this year have the disadvantage of defending seats held by their members in so-called “red” or more Republican-leaning states, such as Alaska, Arkansas and Louisiana, because these seats last came up for election in 2008, a heavily Democratic election year. Most pundits predict that the odds are in favor of the GOP gaining at least six seats, and thereby the Senate majority.

On the Texas political scene, Republicans remain favored to retain control of state government, although Democrats have launched their strongest ticket in recent years. In the governor’s race, Greg Abbott, the Republican nominee, polls ahead of Democrat Wendy Davis. In the campaign for lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick similarly is favored against Leticia Van de Putte. The nominations of Abbott and Patrick represent one of the most conservative tickets in recent Texas political history, which may cause some more moderate voters to look toward Davis and Van de Putte. However, most Texas voters are conservative and President Obama holds high disapproval ratings in the Lone Star State. The combination of statewide Republican strength and it being the sixth year in office for an unpopular president make Democratic prospects for victory in Texas very challenging in 2014.

Indeed, if historic trends continue, Nov. 4 will be a Republican election night, in both Texas and the United States. However, surprises and political upsets do occur each cycle. This is one of the many things that make politics so fascinating. On a final note, regardless of political persuasion, I urge all Longhorns to exercise their right to vote in 2014.

Briscoe is a history graduate student from Carrizo Springs.