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Frequently asked questions about 'midterm' elections

Americans are preparing to vote in upcoming ‘midterm’ elections for congressional seats, state governorships, and other local legislators. takes a closer look at what these elections are and why they are important.


What are “midterm elections”?

Midterm elections occur in the middle of a president’s term and allow US voters to vote for members of Congress, some state governors and legislators, and often specific law proposals relative to the voter’s state. Congress is composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate; all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and about one third of the 100 Senate seats are up for a vote. Thirty-six of 50 state governor posts are also up for grabs. The elections this year will take place on November 2.

Why are they important?

The votes for congressional candidates and governors are often viewed as a test of voters’ confidence in the sitting president. In the upcoming elections, Republicans are pushing this strategy, trying to portray the vote as a referendum on Obama and a chance for voters to express their dissatisfaction with his performance. Midterms are also seen as a potential indicator of broader public opinion of the two major parties. Democrats are therefore hoping that voters view the elections as a choice between Democratic reforms and still unpopular Bush-era policies that Democrats hold responsible for many problems America is facing.

Midterms also have local importance, as voters in some states can elect county commissioners, city councilmen, judges and even sheriffs. Some voters will also be able to weigh in on state-specific policy proposals.

What are the possible outcomes and what could be their impact?

While the results of gubernatorial (governor) elections affect state policy, the outcomes of congressional elections can have a major impact on federal policy by determining a sitting president’s ability to advance his agenda.

Currrently, both bodies of Congress have Democratic majorities. This has made it possible for President Barack Obama to fulfill many of his main legislative goals (the economic stimulus, healthcare overhaul, financial regulation reform).

There are three possible configurations that could emerge from the upcoming midterms: Democrats could hold on to majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, allowing Obama to continue pursuing his policy goals with a reasonable chance of success. Still, a GOP gain of even one Senate seat could bolster Republican filibuster attempts, giving them a greater chance of derailing Democratic initiatives.

Republicans could take over one of the bodies of Congress (most likely the House of Representatives), making the passage of reforms that Obama favours trickier (reforms must be approved by both bodies of Congress before going to the president to be signed into law). This is the most likely scenario, according to experts.

Or Republicans could take back both the House of Representatives and the Senate, making it difficult for Obama to advance on key agenda items such as climate change or immigration. This scenario could see the legislative process facing gridlock, with a Democratic president using his veto to send Republican-sponsored reforms back to Congress.

What have been the historical trends in midterm elections?

Midterm elections have often meant bad news for the party of the sitting president. Over the past 17 midterm elections, the president's party has lost an average of 28 seats in the House and 4 seats in the Senate.

The last midterm elections, in 2006, saw a wave of anti-Bush sentiment help Democrats capture the House, the Senate, and a majority of governorships. Another notable example is 1994, when Americans voted Republicans back into control of Congress in the wake of President Bill Clinton’s failed attempt at a healthcare overhaul.

Do midterm elections predict the next presidential election?

Analysts say midterm elections are generally shaped by the current popularity of the sitting president and the state of the economy. Since both of those factors are highly changeable, midterms are not considered valuable for predicting the results of the next presidential election. Presidents whose parties have been badly beaten in midterm elections, such as Harry Truman in 1946, Ronald Reagan in 1982, and Bill Clinton in 1994, ended up cruising to re-election two years later.

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