How Midterm Elections Work

By: Dave Roos  | 

Historic Midterm Elections

Grover Cleveland, second address
President Grover Cleveland reads his second inaugural address at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., March 4, 1893. Just a year later, his Democratic party was punished with the biggest political midterm reversal on record. Wikimedia Commons

The following are some of the worst trouncings, rarest victories and biggest transfers of congressional power in U.S. midterm history [sources: Frail, Murse and Branigin]:

  • 1894: In 1892, Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, became the first president to be elected to two non-consecutive terms. But soon after his re-election, the U.S. entered a crushing economic depression compounded by a huge railroad strike. Angry voters punished Democrats in the midterms, giving Republicans an additional 116 seats in the House and five in the Senate. It remains the biggest midterm political reversal on record.
  • 1930: After President Herbert Hoover, a Republican, failed to take action to stem the spread of the Great Depression, voters gave Democrats 49 seats in the House and eight in the Senate. The groundswell of labor unionists, farmers and racial minorities that opposed Hoover in the midterm would put Franklin D. Roosevelt in office and pave the way to the New Deal.
  • 1934: Riding the popularity of his New Deal policies, FDR's Democratic party picked up nine seats in the House and nine in the Senate, the greatest midterm performance ever for a party in control of the White House.
  • 1966: In the 1964 presidential race, Democrat Lyndon Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater with 90 percent of the electoral vote. But his support for the Vietnam War and the passing of progressive Civil Rights laws and Medicare cost him popular support. Democrats not only lost 47 seats in the House and three in the Senate, but Republicans also formed a conservative voting bloc that would put Richard Nixon in the White House in 1968.
  • 1974: Republicans took a beating in the midterms held a year after Richard Nixon's resignation over the Watergate scandal, losing 48 seats in the House and five in the Senate.
  • 1994: United by Newt Gingrich's "Contract for America," Republicans mounted a conservative revolution against President Bill Clinton, winning 52 seats in the House and eight in the Senate.
  • 2006: After gaining Republican seats in the 2002 midterm, held a year after the 9/11 attacks, Republican President George W. Bush took a "thumpin'" (his words) in the 2006 midterm. Voters frustrated with the administration's handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan gave Democrats 30 seats in the House and six in the Senate.
  • 2010: The Tea Party rode conservative opposition to Democratic President Barack Obama to a massive Republican victory in the midterms, taking 63 seats in the House and six in the Senate, the most seats lost in a single midterm election since 1938. Obama memorably pronounced the loss a "shellacking."

For lots more information on U.S. elections and the fascinating (often nauseating) world of politics, check out the links below.


Author's Note: How Midterm Elections Work

OK, I'll admit it. I don't get as excited about midterm elections as I do about presidential elections, and there's a very good chance that I have skipped voting in several midterms since turning 18 just a couple (dozen) years ago. But after researching and writing this article, I understand the true significance of midterms in determining not only who controls the Congress, but also who is in charge of things like redistricting on the state level. I fully plan on voting in every midterm from now on, but I seriously doubt I will ever plant a political yard sign in my front lawn. My neighbors don't like me enough as it is.

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More Great Links


  • Enten, Harry. "Do Republicans Really Have a Big Turnout Advantage in Midterms." FiveThirtyEight. Jan. 9, 2018 (Sept. 24, 2018)
  • Erikson, Robert S. "The Puzzle of Midterm Loss." Southern Political Science Association. Nov. 4, 1988 (Sept. 24, 2018)
  • Frail, T.A. "Top 10 Historic Midterm Elections." Oct. 13, 2010 (Sept. 24, 2018)
  • Jones, Jeffrey M. "Avg. Midterm Seat Loss 36 for Presidents Below 50% Approval." Gallup. Aug. 9, 2010 (Sept. 24, 2018)
  • McDonald, Michael P. "Who Voted in 2010, and Why It Matters for 2012." Huffington Post. Nov. 4, 2010 (Sept. 24, 2018)
  • Montanaro, Dominico. "2014 midterm election turnout lowest in 70 years." Nov. 10, 2014 (Sept. 24, 2018)
  • Murse, Tom. "Why the President's Party Loses Seats in Midterm Elections." ThoughtCo. Aug. 14, 2018 (Sept. 24, 2018)
  • National Conference of State Legislatures. "State Legislative Races and Ballot Measures." Sept. 5, 2018 (Sept. 24, 2018)
  • "Nebraska Unicameral" (Sept. 24, 2018)
  • Skelley, Geoffrey and Kondick, Kyle. "How Midterms Do (and Do Not) Differ From Presidential Elections." University of Virginia Center for Politics. March 2, 2017 (Sept. 24, 2018)
  • The United States Conference of Mayors. "Election Results" (Sept. 24, 2018)
  • United States House of Representatives. "Biennial Elections." History, Art and Archives (Sept. 24, 2018)
  • United States Senate. "The Senate and the United States Constitution" (Sept. 24, 2018)
  • "Midterm Congressional, State and Local Elections" (Sept. 24, 2018)