What Are Midterm Elections in the U.S.?

(Last Updated On: October 24, 2018)

What Are Midterm Elections in the U.S.?
You’ve likely heard about them a lot in the news lately, but just what are midterm elections, and why are they so important? Here’s a quick overview.

What Are Midterm Elections?

Midterm elections take place in the United States every four years. This is roughly halfway through a presidential term (hence, the name “midterm”). Because of their timing, midterm elections can be a key force in shaping a president’s remaining two years in office.

In many ways, midterm elections are the first real chance for the American people to express their feelings on the current government. It is common to see the president’s party lose seats in Congress and, in general, lose some of its power. People are rarely satisfied with the performance of politicians, and after two full years they have had ample opportunity to become disillusioned, often leading to shifts in allegiance.

What Is Voted On During Midterm Elections?

In the United States, elections are held yearly on Election Day. This is always observed on the first Tuesday after November 1st.

It is important to stress that midterm elections are different from presidential elections. Though both happen every four years, during the latter, citizens will vote to elect a president through the electoral college. So the President’s job is safe during midterms.

Given all that, however, there are still many important things that get voted on during midterms. Among the positions in play:

  1. Congressional Seats – There are 435 seats in the House of Representatives, and these members only serve for two years.
  2. Senate Seats – One-third of the Senate seats (they elect one-third every two years).
  3. State Governors – 34 of 50 states have chosen this time to elect their governors to four-year terms. There are also Vermont and New Hampshire, whose governors are elected every two years.
  4. State Legislatures – Some states also hold elections for their state legislatures.
  5. Municipal Elections – At the more local level, several offices and other initiatives might be voted on. This includes mayoral races and other public offices.

There are also a large number of special elections – 94 in 2018. These include all manner of unusual circumstances, such as retirement, death, removal from office, or resignation.

Why Do Fewer People Vote in Midterm Elections?

Usually, presidential elections generate 50-60 percent voter turnout, while the midterms only get about 40 percent, and just 36 percent the last time they were held in 2014. There are a number of theories as to why this is, but mainly people seem to see the midterms as somewhat less important than the presidential election. In particular, there tends to be a large voter drop-off among minorities, young people, low-income individuals, and less educated groups, possibly due to the logistics of voting (i.e. transport, time off work, long lines, etc.).

Why Are Midterm Elections Important?

The midterm elections are often considered something of a referendum on the president. Since they occur roughly half-way through the presidential term, the results are typically seen as a barometer of their performance and overall public opinion. Sometimes, they can result in a significant shift of power in both the House and Senate. Historically, the sitting president’s party has lost an average of 30 congressional seats. Only twice has a president gained seats in both, most recently George W. Bush in 2002. That was widely attributed to the surge in patriotism and his popularity following 9/11.

Why Does the President’s Party Usually Lose Seats in Midterms?

There are a couple of different theories for why the sitting president’s political party typically loses congressional seats during midterm elections.

The “coattails effect” occurs when a president wins in a landslide. Obviously, at the time, enthusiasm was high, but after two years apathy has begun to set in, along with all the usual dissatisfaction people typically feel toward politicians. Change is rarely as fast or impressive as people hope.

Then there is the tendency of people to be more likely to vote when they are angry. Therefore, those who are generally satisfied with the effectiveness of the current government are less likely to vote than those who are angered by it.

Regardless of the reason, the midterm elections represent an important moment in any presidential term. Control of the House of Representatives and the Senate is crucial in passing or blocking any potential changes or reforms, as well as setting the agenda. What happens in November will go a long way to shaping the next two years of government.

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