The six-year itch — a closer look

Rich Lowry identifies seven “myths” about last week’s election. I think most of the seven propositions Lowry disputes are indeed mythical. However, Lowry is too quick to dismiss this statement: “Republican losses were in keeping with typical setbacks for a party holding the White House in the sixth year of a presidency.” He does so on these grounds:

[M]ost of the big [“six year itch” debacles] came prior to the past 20 years when gerrymandering got more sophisticated. Reagan lost only five seats in his sixth year, and Clinton only five (although he had already suffered a wipeout in 1994). For Democrats to win 29 seats despite all the advantages of incumbency enjoyed by the GOP is a big deal.

But going into 1986, the Republicans were a minority in the House with only 182 seats (many fewer than they will hold next session). Thus, their loss of 5 seats that year represented quite a poor performance. Losing approximately six times more this year is worse of course, but not by nearly as much as the difference between 5 and 30 suggests. Moreover, in the Senate, where the Republicans had a majority going into the 1986 campaign, the party suffered an enormous set-back that year, losing 8 seats and control of the chamber (note, however, that the Repubs were trying to hold an unusually high number of seats due to their great success in 1980).
Lowry’s analysis pretty much acknowledges why 1998 is a misleading indicator of the modern force of the six year itch. Voters had already “thrown the bums out” in 1994. Thus, the itch had been scratched, and there weren’t enough bums left to throw out in any case. And 1986 and 1998 can hardly be cited as proof that sophisticated gerrymandering has made “itch” elections obsolete — not in light of what happened in 1994.
It may be a little misleading to compare the number of Republican losses this year with a precise average of losses in “sixth-year” election, and it is certainly wrong to deny that this year’s losses were a “big deal.” But it is not misleading to assign a considerable amount of the blame to the six-year itch.
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