U.S. Election Trends

An election trend is a pattern that seems to occur from election period to election period. One such trend is the midterm penalty trend. This trend refers to the history of the White House party usually losing seats in the House and Senate during the midterm elections. This trend can lead to a divided government, which refers to Congress having a different party majority than that of the White House. Another election trend is that incumbents, current office holders, usually win reelection. This is due to name recognition as well as support from Political Action Committees, or PACs. PACs lobby and collect funds for a particular party or campaign and will support an incumbent during reelection in order to influence the incumbent to siding with the PAC on political issues. With the aid of these funds, incumbents usually have an advantage during the election season. These are just some examples of election trends in American politics.

Presidential and Midterm Elections

At the federal level there are basically two types of elections: presidential elections and midterm elections. Presidential elections happen every 4 years, and midterm elections happen every 4 years. In a presidential election the positions that are on the ballot are, of course, the office of president, all members of the House of Representatives, all 435 of them, and then 1/3 of the Senate.

The way the Senate is set up is that none of them are all on the ballot at the same time, instead they serve a 6-year term so every 2 years 1/3 of the Senate is up for re-election. A presidential election happens, then 2 years later there’s a midterm election.

Well, this terminology makes sense because a presidential term is 4 years, so halfway through a president’s term (midway through the term) is when you have the midterm elections. In this case, the Office of President is not on the ballot, but all the members of the House are on the ballot again, and then 1/3 of the Senate is up for election. 1/3 of the Senate seats on the ballot, basically, and this is a different 1/3 than was here during the presidential election.

Senate Rotation

There’s something called the midterm penalty that exists with midterm elections and this is when the party in the White House usually loses seat in midterms. What this means is, say a Republican is elected during a presidential election, 2 years later the midterm is going to happen, the Republicans are probably going to lose seats in both the House and the Senate.

This works vice versa, if a Democrat is elected in a presidential election, 2 years later the Democrats are probably going to lose seats in the Senate and the House. Well, sometimes this midterm penalty can be so dramatic that it results in a divided government meaning that the House and the Senate are controlled by the party not in the White House, so that means there could be a Democratic president and then a House and a Senate controlled by Republicans, or vice versa.

However, the divided government does not always happen, what happens a lot of times is maybe you have a Republican president and a Republican-held Senate, but a Democratic controlled House, or vice versa, that a Democratic president and a Democratic-controlled Senate and then a Republican House. Now when it comes to elections, in presidential elections or in midterm elections, incumbents usually win.

Incumbency Advantage

Now, what’s an incumbent? An incumbent is someone already in office, so we could say all of those in the House and the Senate, those are all incumbents, so those are people that are already in office, and these people usually win. Now sometimes, say a member of the House decides not to run anymore. Well, now everyone on the ballot is not an incumbent, but usually the incumbent will run for re-election, so one of the people on the ballot is an incumbent. Now, why did they usually win? Well, one reason is name recognition.

Name recognition is so important to political campaigns. If someone knows your name they’re much more likely to vote for you—so this person campaigned 2 years ago, and they did campaigning then to get their name out there, people saw their name on the ballot 2 years ago, and now that they’ve been in office their name has probably been on the news and in the newspaper, so people have heard about this person, so they have a high level of name recognition.

The non-incumbent, the new person, on the ballot has to build all that name recognition in a short amount of time while they’re campaigning. Second reason incumbents are successful is because they’ve already shown that people like them. In other words, 2 years ago a member of the House was elected, so that shows that that that person is liked by a majority of the voters out there, so the incumbent has already gathered support, they’ve already shown that people like them.

With someone new on the ballot, well, there’s a chance that no one really wants to vote for them or no one likes them, so that’s another reason that incumbents are more successful is they already have a track record of success, so it’s more likely that they’re going to keep winning. Another reason is because of PACs. PACs are political action committees. They collect money and donate funds to political campaigns and do lobbying of Congress, and they typically donate to incumbents. Now, why would they want to do that?

Well remember PACs do lobbying, so that means they’ve probably built relationships with the incumbents before, so they can expect to benefit from the incumbents more because they already have a working relationship with them. Another reason is PACs want to be on the good side of those in office, so they know that more likely than not the incumbent’s going to be re-elected because that’s usually how it works, so since they know that the incumbent has the advantage they want to support the incumbent, so that when the incumbent is re-elected they have not been alienated from them, but instead they have a great relationship with the incumbent to try to influence them and get policies enacted that they’re in favor of. That’s a look at some basics of election trends.



by Mometrix Test Preparation | Last Updated: February 2, 2024