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The Devastating History Of Midterm Elections

U.S. President Ronald Reagan quiets a cheering crowd at a Republican rally in November 1986. (AP)

History tells us that midterm elections are bad — sometimes very bad — for the party that controls the White House. President Obama and the Democrats are pushing for voter turnout in the final days before next Tuesday's midterm election. But they are also bracing 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.

It's a trend that began as early as the Civil War and is firmly established in the era of the modern presidency.

Here are some notable presidential midterm setbacks and disasters:

1938

Big losses for FDR in the U.S. House amid weariness over economy and New Deal doubts

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 U.S. House. One columnist noted that the GOP elephant had emerged from the doghouse it had occupied since the Depression.

1950

Harry Truman suffers through a big GOP night six years into his presidency

This newsreel from that year captures the mood — it was a record turnout for a midterm. The president voices optimism over his Democratic Party's chances as he votes in his hometown of Independence, Mo. But the opposition party carries the day.

1986

President Reagan campaigns for the GOP, saying it's a clear choice. Voters choose Democrats, giving that party control of the U.S. Senate.

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 U.S. Senate away from the GOP.

1994

Clinton is drubbed in the year of the "Republican Revolution"

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

The GOP captured the U.S. 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 the GOP 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. Clinton in 1998 and President George W. Bush in 2002 are notable recent examples.

2006

Discontent over Iraq war leads to Bush's midterm "thumpin'"

After the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush's approval ratings soared into the 90s. By 2006, after years of a difficult and controversial war in Iraq, his ratings had tumbled to 40 percent 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'."

2010

Enter the Tea Party and a revitalized GOP

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

"Some election nights are more fun than others; some are exhilarating; some are humbling," the president 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."

Let's all work together for the American people

There's something else that presidents tend to say after a humiliating midterm — that they've gotten the message. It usually comes in some variation of this, as spoken by President George W. Bush after GOP losses in 2006.

"You know if you focus on the big picture, which in this case is our nation, and issues we need to work together on, you can get stuff done."

History also tells us something about just how well that works out.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Midterm elections are often bad - sometimes, very bad - for sitting presidents. Pres. Obama and the Democrats are pushing voter turnout in the final days before Tuesday's vote. They're also bracing for what could be a rough night of ballot counting. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea has this look at the past that may again be prologue.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It was November 1938. On the eve of that year's midterm elections, Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt called upon the nation to pull together as war loomed in Europe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: Remember that in these grave days in the affairs of the world, we need internal unity - national unity. For the sake of the nation, that is good advice.

GONYEA: But the voters ignored that advice. Their concerns were mostly domestic - frustration with the New Deal, high unemployment, a downturn called the Roosevelt Recession and a general weariness about FDR himself. In the 1938 midterms, Republicans picked up 81 seats in the U.S. House. Susan Dunn is a political historian and author of several books about FDR.

SUSAN DUNN: The Democrats took a real drubbing, and it was truly a stunning reversal after the presidential election of 1936, which was a landslide for FDR.

GONYEA: Now, to 1950...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Home in Independence, Pres. Truman leads the nation to the polls, as Americans turn out in record numbers for a non-presidential election. Mr. Truman appears just as confident as he did two years ago when he engineered the most stunning upset in U.S. political history. But across the nation, it's the Republicans' turn to smile.

GONYEA: By then, smack in the middle of the 20th century, the trend was already long-established. Voters elect a president one year, then two years later, hand the White House a setback in the midterms. And just as predictable is the sitting president trying to frame the election on their own terms, as FDR did in 1938 and as Pres. Reagan does here, ahead of the 1986 midterms.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: The choice before the American people this year is of overwhelming importance - whether to hand the government back to the liberals or move forward with the conservative agenda into the 1990s.

GONYEA: Reagan's Republican Party lost the Senate that year. Pres. Clinton also felt the voters' wrath in his first midterm in 1994. The GOP captured the U.S. House, Senate and the majority of governorships in what was dubbed the Republican Revolution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: The American people believe a majority of them and have believed for decades now that a divided government may work better than a united government. As you know, I disagree with that.

GONYEA: There are occasional exceptions to the general rule that the White House takes a beating in midterms. 1998 for Clinton and 2002 for Pres. George W. Bush are notable recent examples, but no modern president has escaped completely. Six years into Bush's presidency, with the Iraq war going badly, voters spoke loudly and clearly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Look, this is a close election. The - if you look at race by race, it was close. The cumulative effect, however, was not too close. It was a thumping.

GONYEA: Which brings us to the current administration - Pres. Obama's first midterm test was 2010. The newly prominent Tea Party and the GOP pushback after passage of Obamacare resulted in a change of course by voters. Republican gains were huge, and Democrats lost the House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, some election nights are more fun than others. Some are exhilarating. Some are humbling.

GONYEA: He later called it a shellacking. But here's something else presidents tend to say after a humiliating midterm - that they've gotten the message. And as George W. Bush put it...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUSH: You know, if you focus on the big picture, which, in this case, is our nation and issues we need to work together on, you can get stuff done.

GONYEA: But history also tells us something about just how well that last sentiment has worked out. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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