As we watch the escapades of the incoming Republican House majority of the 118th Congress broadcast to the world the most dysfunction for an incoming House majority or plurality since the 1850s, it is worth contrasting that with the historic achievements of Biden and his Administration as well as his Democrats during the 117th Congress, which are strongly tied to the historic performance of theirs in the 2022 midterm elections on grounds far less favorable than most of the few presidents and their’ parties that did as well or better in those presidents’ first midterms.
By Brian E. Frydenborg (Twitter @bfry1981, LinkedIn, Facebook) January 6, 2023; see related articles from July 11, 2021, Media Keeps Portraying Democrats and Biden as a Mess, Ignoring Data Proving that Could Not Be Further from Truth and November 15, 2021, A BIG F**KING DEAL: Biden’s Infrastructure Bill in Historical Perspective. Real Context News produces commissioned content for clients upon request.
SILVER SPRING—It is time to acknowledge the historic greatness of the Biden Administration for what it is, and the performance the Democrats under Biden in the 2022 midterm elections is one of several strong examples of this greatness.
With the final seat of Congress decided by the Great State of Georgia after the December runoff victory of Rev. Raphael Warnock, who beat a walking public service announcement for football-related traumatic brain injury in the form of Herschel Walker (and far more emphatically than in November, by a percentage margin over three times greater), we can truly take stock of the historic overperformance of Joe Biden and the Democratic Party under his leadership.
Of course, a lot of this was about individual candidates. And Biden has had an excellent partner in Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in the Senate (he doesn’t get enough credit) and has had an incredible ally in the House with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, certainly one of the best—one of the most effective and accomplished—speakers in U.S. history, perhaps the best.
Still, in our presidential system, midterm election performance has always been one of the major measures of how presidents are judged during their term and throughout American history: no matter what happens, it is always to a large extent a metric tied to the president’s performance and leadership as leader of his party (with only the exception of John Tyler simply not having a party by his only midterm in 1842-1843 after he inherited the presidency upon the death of Whig President William Henry Harrison, whose people did not vet Tyler enough to realize he was, well, not really a Whig). Of course, the degree to which a midterm should reflect and does in the popular consciousness and amongst pundits and scholars can and does wax and wane due to a variety of factors and circumstances at the time, but it is there, an inescapable part of the equation of evaluating presidents.
I have already discussed in detail how legislatively and in terms of party unity in Congress, the Biden Administration in its first two years and the Democratic Party under Biden in the 117th Congress are the most impressive since LBJ in the 1960s and, well, ever in U.S. history, respectively (in terms of party unity with the possible only exception of one Federalist Senate at the dawn of our republic). And I have further explained how these very accomplishments are even more impressive in that they came in an era of far more division (the most divided in modern American history and with the smallest governing majorities), but here, after these midterms, we have even more hard data that places Biden’s and his party’s midterm election performance in proper historical perspective, confirming this performance is among the highest in American history, especially in the modern era.
How do I know this? I have literally (to use a Bidenism) put together data on every president’s first midterm since the dawn of the republic, available in a full set of Excel spreadsheets I created, but I will cut and paste images of some of that data here, images you can zoom in on by clicking on them. You can see the full data in a close-up image by clicking on images or on the link in this paragraph for the Excel version. And if I may toot my own horn, I am pretty sure this is by far the most comprehensive presentation of data in table form of American presidents’ first midterm performances you can find anywhere (if you find a more detailed presentation do please let me know; it took me way longer that I had hoped to put this together).
Here, first, are all the first midterms for presidents from 1914 onward, as the House had the same number of seats—435—since then and also as 1914 was first midterm when every regular U.S. Senate election was determined by popular vote (as opposed to being selected by the state legislatures) with the implementation of the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution; we shall call these midterms the midterm elections of the “modern era.” Elections from this era, then, will be the most useful for comparison as the losses and gain are all from a House of the same size and the Senate’s size did not change very much, with all its races actually decided by popular elections.
This dataset includes presidents who came to power after a death (Truman in 1945 after FDR died), assassination (Teddy Roosevelt, or TR, in 1901 after McKinley was killed), or resignation (Ford after Nixon’s 1974 resignation) and had their first midterm without being elected; if applicable, in addition to the midterms for their first partial terms, I have also included when applicable their first midterms after being actually elected president as well as after their inherited midterms (Roosevelt in 1906 after 1902, Truman in 1950 after 1946; Ford never won a presidential election as he was defeated by Carter in 1976), as comparisons can be difficult and a midterm after inheriting the presidency and a midterm after actually being elected are not exactly apples and oranges (inherited term data is in italics in the tables).
This data is even more telling if we arrange these modern-era presidents in a ranking based on seats won or lost in Congress, starting with the House.
Among modern presidencies spanning more than a century, Joe Biden is tied for 5th in terms of the best absolute performance for his party in the House of Representatives (a loss of 9 seats): only 4 modern presidents over 4 midterms—FDR and his Democrats gaining 9 seats in 1934, George W. Bush and his Republicans gaining 8 seats in 2002, JFK and his Democrats losing 4 in 1962, and George H. W. Bush and his Republicans losing 8 in 1990—did better.
It is also quite telling that in the entirety of the modern era, only 2 presidents have actually gained seats at all in the House during their first midterms: presidents almost always have their party lose seats.
Biden ties with Calvin Coolidge’s and his Republicans’ performance from 1926, only losing 9 seats (though in Biden’s case, this meant Democrats lost control of the House, while Coolidge kept control of the House for his Republicans, so I put ol’ Calvin above Joe on the tie order). This puts Biden over 13 other presidents and 14 first midterms (per my explanation above, Truman gets 2 in our accounting) in terms their first post-elected and/or post-inherited midterms.
But not all elections are equal, and I account for some extraordinary circumstances in the notes section. In this spirit, if we consider the conditions of each election, Biden’s specific ranking is unique and far more impressive: FDR got to have his first midterm not far from the nadir of the Great Depression; George W. Bush was riding a high-level of unity and support after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and during the early phase of the war in Afghanistan; Kennedy had literally just days earlier resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis, averting nuclear war and ending a major standoff with the Soviet Union, saving the world (partnering with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev) from destruction; and George H. W. Bush had his midterm while he was presiding over a Cold War victory (Germany was reunified just a month before the election) and during the Gulf War, Bush’s handling of which enjoyed widespread support.
But while each of those four presidents enjoyed considerable winds at their backs, Biden in 2022 had been dealing with decades-high inflation, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the worst levels of partisanship since the Civil War and Reconstruction that are tied to an ongoing Trumpist insurrection seeking to destroy American democracy.
In other words, while those “scoring” “better” by having their parties fare better in the House than Biden saw massive levels of broad, historic support in the face of various domestic and geopolitical consensus moments—with history on their side in historic ways—Biden had the wind blowing in his face and was able still to perform as well as he did and close enough to those with far better circumstances. In that light, Biden and his Democrats’ performance is perhaps the most remarkable performance considering the difficulties they faced and those other four presidents and their parties did not.
The biggest winner in the modern era was FDR in 1934 with a gain of 9 seats and the biggest loser Warren Harding in 1922 losing a massive 77 seats!
Biden’s modern House first midterm ranking: 5th (4 presidents and midterms ahead, 13 presidents and 14 midterms behind, tied with 1) out of 19 presidents and 20 first midterms
Let’s also look at the Senate-side of things.
In the Senate, too, Biden is also 5th in the modern era, tied with Richard Nixon with a gain of 1 seat each, ahead of 12 other presidents over 13 relevant midterms (Truman, again, is counted twice). With the exception of Reagan, who oversaw Senate Republicans hold steady, the rest of those presidents all had their parties lose seats. Only 5 other presidents also gained seats: FDR and his Democrats (+9), JFK and his Democrats (+4), Woodrow Wilson and his Democrats (+3), and George W. Bush and Donald Trump each with their Republicans (+2; not in line with House results for Trump as he and his Republicans lost 42 House seats that same year in 2018, as the Senate can easily be out of sync with the House, especially considering all 435 House seats are up for election every two years while only a third of Senate seats are at stake in any given election). Keeping in mind the challenging circumstances in which Biden is governing, remember also that 3 of the 5 “scoring” ahead of Biden faced very favorable circumstances, as discussed, also leading to relatively quite strong House results for them, as discussed. Thus, Biden and Democrats’ performance Senate-side is also quite remarkable. In fact, their performance in 2022 is the first time since 1934 a president’s party successfully defended every Senate seat up for election that they held before the election, a real history-making series of victories, indeed.
The champ is FDR with +9 seats in 1934, the biggest loser Truman with -11 in 1946 (sorry, Harry).
Biden’s modern Senate first midterm ranking: 5th (5 presidents ahead, 12 presidents and 13 midterms behind, tied with 1) out of 19 presidents and 20 first midterms
If you want to get really meta, you can go all the way back to George Washington’s first midterm.
Which I did.
Here we are using “premodern” to refer to all midterms from Washington’s first in 1790/1791 and up through the last elections in the early twentieth century (1910) before all Senate midterm elections were conducted as popular votes, à la the Seventeenth Amendment.
And if we rank everyone from 1790 to 2022, first with the House?
Here, Biden still stands out, tied for 10th with premodern John Quincy Adams in addition to the modern Coolidge. Included among those surpassing him are some of greats from a much earlier period in American history where there was, relatively speaking, a lot more unity during particular midterm years: Jefferson comes in 1st well into his “Jeffersonian Revolution of 1800”, with James Monroe and James Madison tied for 2nd (all with their Democratic-Republican Party and the era of the latter two ending up being so unified their time in part was referred to as the “Era of Good Feelings” and was essentially one-party ruling with an overwhelming majority). You also have giants like Teddy Roosevelt and his Republicans in 1902 after his first midterm (5th place) after he took over after the assassination of William McKinley, and you have our first two presidents—George Washington in 1790 and John Adams in 1798 with their Federalists—tied for 6th.
Only 12 presidents and 12 first midterms rank higher than Biden out of 45 individuals to hold the office (yes, Biden is the 46th president, but Grover Cleveland was both the 22nd and 24th president since he singularly won non-consecutive terms—and let’s hope Trump does not repeat this feat—so there are only 45 people in question, and less because of exclusions and deaths, which I will discuss below), but of those 12, 1 is Teddy Roosevelt and he ranks above Biden with his non-elected, inherited midterm after McKinley’s assassination but below him with his first midterm after he was actually elected to the presidency, so take that that for what you will. Biden ranks ahead of 25 other presidents and 26 midterms. Except, since we have Teddy Roosevelt as 2 “others” here, 1 election ahead and 1 election behind, I suppose we could say Biden is loosely-tied as a president with Teddy and more closely tied with Coolidge and Quincy Adams—tied with 3 presidents and 2 two midterms—with only 11 presidents ahead of Biden (subtracting TR) and 12 midterms ahead of Biden’s (keeping 1 of TR’s) and 24 presidents and 26 midterms behind Biden (since he beat both of Truman’s midterms and we are including the other TR midterm).
And for some real perspective? Even Lincoln, our greatest president, lost 23 seats (and his party’s majority in the House, but it would govern through a plurality coalition) in his first midterm in 1862-1863 during the Civil War.
The all-time winner is Thomas Jefferson gaining 35 House seats for his Democratic-Republicans in 1802 and Benjamin Harrison losing the most—a whopping 93 Republican seats—in 1890.
Biden’s all-time House first midterm ranking: 10th (11 presidents and 12 midterms ahead, 24 presidents and 26 midterms below, 2-way tie with 1 more “tie”: tied with 3 presidents and 2 midterms) out of 39 eligible presidents and 41 eligible first midterms (see the discussion of which 6 presidents were removed from consideration in the final section)
Now, for the full Senate history:
These should not be weighted as heavily as House results because most of the premodern Senators were chosen by state legislatures and not the people directly, but, still, as the state legislators were mostly chosen by the people, it still involves some degree of (indirect) popular selection and is something of a representative choice. The Senate also has much smaller margins and swings, so the results are all a lot closer and therefore harder to differentiate and chance plays a much wider role in variations. So, out of our four major measures, we can confidently say that this one has the least value.
In any case, Biden still comes out pretty well, with some of the same crowd that has outperformed him—along with some others—coming in ahead, and some surprising ties, while still being ahead of most of the competition in the end.
Biden comes in at 7th but in a five-way tie; they all come in with a gain of 1 Senate seat (behind a five-way tie for 6th with 2+ Senate-seat gains). His fellow 7th-placers are George Washington from 1790, Andrew Jackson in 1830, Abraham Lincoln in 1862, and Richard Nixon in 1970 (wow to all of that). 12 midterms from 11 presidents are ahead of Biden (including both of Teddy Roosevelt’s) and 24 midterms behind him from 23 presidents (including both of Truman’s terms).
Same champ and biggest loser from the modern era, but factoring out the modern era, among the premoderns McKinley fares the best at +8 in 1898 (but then he was assassinated, so, small consolation for his fans) and William Taft the worst in 1910 at -9 (trimming a lot of fat, relatively; sorry, I couldn’t resist).
Biden’s all-time Senate first midterm ranking: 10th (11 presidents and 12 midterms ahead, 23 presidents and 24 midterms below, 5-way tie with 5) out of 39 eligible presidents and 41 eligible midterms
There you have all the data (remember, available in a full Excel file), with quirks and nuances explained by a key and accompanying notes in the file and the images.
I’d say that the House results are much more meaningful because, again, they reflect the mood of the whole nation and have always been chosen directly by the people, while Senate elections only reflect one-third of the country and were not always popularly elected. And, again, perhaps the most important context to consider is that most of the people doing better than Biden in these rankings had history and some big unifying advantages on their side right at the time of the elections or at the very least did not usually have terribly divisive issues plaguing the country, while Biden had some major issues dividing the nation much more intensely during his first midterm as a time, again, of historic division. That does not mean there were not crises those other leaders faced, but some crises—the Great Depression and WWII, for example, or 9/11 and the early days in Afghanistan, or the Gulf War or the Cuban Missile Crisis—unify the nation while others—slavery in the mid-1800s or inflation and COVID-19 for Biden—divide the nation. This, for the most part, places Biden in his own special category, objectively speaking, especially in the modern era.
This historic 2022 midterms performance is, of course, tied to the historic legislative accomplishments of the Biden Administration, the historic and (near-?)unprecedented party discipline of the Democrats of the 117th Congress, and the historic and unprecedented support Biden and that Congress offered Ukraine on the front line of the war for democracy and freedom against fascism and tyranny.
Contrast Biden and his Democrats with the current House Republicans, who are more than flirting with fascism (I do not use that term lightly and took some pains to define it) and showing the most dysfunction of an incoming House majority or plurality party since the 1850s, still unable to elect a House Speaker after an incredible fourteen ballots (last few of these ballots happening on the second anniversary of Trump’s Capitol insurrection in the very chamber assaulted by Trump’s insurrectionists!), much to the embarrassment of invertebrate Kevin McCarthy.
Yes, this whole first midterm thing is just one metric of several major metrics by which a president can be evaluated, some of which are qualitative and hard to measure, and, yes, even this one can be tricky to really properly measure, but the data is still clear: Biden and his Democrats stood out in league with some very good company ahead of most presidents and most of their parties, and were able to do so facing national divisions those outperforming him did not. History has already been written here, and credit is due where credit is due.
The media should more and more be explaining all this to voters, avoiding false equivalence, and properly contrasting the options for voters, which it is, simply put, not very good at (as I have noted repeatedly before). Yet voters need to realize these stark truths as they consider their choices in the crucial elections ahead, as the survival of both our very democracy and Western democracy itself may depend on that realization.
On My Imperfect Ranking System, Its Methodology and Data
Compared to just the modern presidents’ midterms, ranking the comprehensive set is trickier. Again, quick summary of the combined House data: 11 ahead of Biden + 1 Biden himself + 2 tied +1 “tied” (TR) +24 behind Biden + 3 excluded + 3 who died before any midterms and you account for all 45 presidents (11+1+2+1+24+3+3=45) with 44 midterms, 2 midterms being considered each for TR and Truman, just so you see from where I got my numbers. Depending on what you want to count, you have options your own options.
Out of 45 presidents, 3 were dead before their first midterm would have happened. In terms of the number of midterms, there were 44 first midterms (including 2 each by my parameters for Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman, as they are the only 2 presidents to inherit a presidency, have a first midterm not after being elected, and then actually win a presidential election and have another midterm, the first after being elected), but 3 of these midterms and presidents were excluded from the rankings to make a total 6 ineligible presidents, all in the premodern era: William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor died (in 1841 and 1850, respectively) before any midterm could happen and James Garfield was assassinated in 1881 before any midterm for him; as for the 1842-3 midterms of William Harrison’s successor John Tyler, Tyler had no party affiliation and this cannot be evaluated; during Reconstruction (1863-1877), Andrew Johnson and his Democrats in 1866-7 and Ulysses Grant and his Republicans in 1870-1 are excluded from rankings for very specific reason, explained in the next paragraph.
During the Civil War and after (an era known as Reconstruction), most of the Southern proslavery states that had attempted to secede were not seated for some time in the Congress, but were readmitted during a period of varying degrees of U.S. military government operating in those states in the face of white supremacist terrorist insurgencies that would eventually succeed and establish Jim Crow apartheid (let’s just be honest here) until the Civil Rights reforms of the 1960s. Therefore, the Reconstruction results of Johnson and Grant’s first midterms are not included in the rankings due to the complications of military government during major insurgencies and states being readmitted under such conditions.
Even pulling three midterm results out, there are other complications. When you include the premodern data, these rankings are a lot more complicated considering both the House and the Senate grew dramatically in size in the premodern period. Some examples from the House of this and how tough it is to properly rank in this era and rank against presidents in much later periods within the premodern era and after it: Washington gained three House seats in 1790/1 at a time when the entire House was just 67 seats and is ranked below both FDR in 1934 (3rd, +9) and George W. Bush in 2002 (4th, +8) at a time when the House had 435 members to Washington’s 67 or Adams’s 106 (who with his 1798/9 +3 is tied with Washington even with significantly more House seats).
So, in the end, that means 39 of 45 different individuals who were president are considered across 41 ranked out of 44 first midterms, allowing for the flukes and deviations. No system would be perfect and, without getting into advanced weighting and statistics (for example, calculating what a 3-seat gain for Washington in a House with 67 seats would be proportionally adjusted for a modern 435-seat House), I challenge anyone to come up with a better yet-relatively-simple system and welcome anyone who will answer that challenge.
A lot of the data initially came from Wikipedia gateways but with easily verifiable official records from Congress just a link away and with often easy-(but sometimes not-so-easy)to-access data confirming and/or clarifying what was presented in Wikipedia. You can check my numbers against whatever you are able to find, but I did spend a lot of time reviewing and confirming the data and am highly confident in the numbers I posted, which you are free to double-check for yourselves.
And, since a lot of this involved rankings, I used numerals for single and double-digits and for rankings to stay consistent for your eyes.
Finally, if you would like the premodern data separately, well, here’s that too:
And don’t forget: all that data is available in my multiple-spreadsheet Excel file! See related articles from July 11, 2021, Media Keeps Portraying Democrats and Biden as a Mess, Ignoring Data Proving that Could Not Be Further from Truth and November 15, 2021 A BIG F**KING DEAL: Biden’s Infrastructure Bill in Historical Perspective
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