Good Government

Predicting congressional elections

February 15, 2022

Rick Farmer, Ph.D.

The partisan control of Congress is more a matter of self-fulfilling predictions than a matter of competitive elections.

When newly elected Congressmen arrive in Washington they are anxious to affect national policy and they begin to look around for colleagues who have similar policy values. Likeminded policymakers tend to be found among the two political parties, based around liberal and conservative values.

James Madison predicted this would happen in 1787. George Washington warned against it. But, as Madison pointed out, factions are “sown in the nature of man.”

When Congressmen gather in the conservative Republican and liberal Democratic caucuses, they elect leaders to further their policy agendas. The party with the most members uses its numbers to take control of the legislative chamber (House or Senate) and the policymaking apparatus.

In 1981 political scientists Gary Jacobson and Samuel Kernell observed that majority control of the U.S. House results from political actors responding to expectations. Many incumbent members who think their party will lose the majority decide to retire rather than face defeat or serve in the minority. Quality challengers, sensing the win, decide to seek office. Donors and activists in one party are depressed, in the other party they are energized. By the time the election rolls around in November the outcome has long since been determined by the number of open seats, the number of quality challengers, the fundraising, and the campaign effort.

In the midterm elections, the president’s party almost always loses seats. It is only a matter of how many. In 2022 the House Democrats can only afford to lose 6 seats. Senate Democrats cannot afford to lose any seats.

Already the predictions of Republicans taking charge of the U.S. House are starting to self-fulfill. Already 30 Democratic Congressmen have announced they are retiring. Republicans are raising record amounts of money. Small donors gave Republicans $559 million in 2021 on just one online platform. And a recent poll shows 40 percent of conservatives are enthusiastic about voting in 2022, but only 28 percent of liberals are enthusiastic.

Madison predicted political parties would form and take control of Congress. Jacobson and Kernell taught us how to predict which party would control the congressional policymaking apparatus. The November 2022 election appears to be playing out exactly as predicted.