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Keys to the Midterm Elections

This is the first in a two-part analysis of the 2002 midterm election results.

This year's midterm elections underscored as well as any in recent history the critical importance of getting out the vote. The two major parties are evenly matched in their representation in the general population. If every American turned out to vote, the results would be a dead heat. However, not everyone turns out -- and therein lies the significance of each party's attempt to get their partisans to the polls. All else being equal, the party that gets more of its members to the voting booth wins. That's particularly true in a midterm election when voter turnout is almost always well below 50%.

How Did Voter Turnout Affect the Midterm Elections?

Our last Gallup survey before the Nov. 5 midterm elections indicated that 34% of all adult Americans identified themselves as Republicans, 34% identified as Democrats, and 31% identified as independents.

These estimates were based on the entire population. In the actual election, only 39% of the total eligible population voted. Even with this low turnout, the election results would have been even if those who voted had been a perfect microcosm of the eligible population -- but they were not. Although both parties heavily invested in getting out the vote, the Republicans proved more successful. This differential formed a key to the Republican gain of six seats in the House of Representatives.

Our final estimate of the national vote for the House used a "likely voter" procedure to winnow the population to those adults most likely to vote. This final likely voter pool was 43% Republican, 36% Democrat and 26% independent -- a decidedly more Republican skew than that in the entire adult population. Ninety-two percent of Republicans said they would vote for the Republican candidate in their district, almost the same as the percentage of Democrats (93%) who said they would vote Democratic. Thus, the Republican skew in the likely voter pool translated into a final vote estimate of 51% Republican, 45% Democrat. That turned out to be remarkably close to the real results that gave the GOP its House victory, and along the way helped it win Senate control.

In short, the Republicans went from a dead-even split with Democrats among the general population to a seven-point advantage among the group of Americans who actually turned out to vote.

The Demographics of the 2002 Vote

One of the important ways in which the GOP turnout advantage manifested itself this year was in the Democrats' inability to take advantage of their strong positioning among younger voters.

Our data suggest that 18- to 34-year-olds were significantly more likely to say they would vote for the Democratic candidate rather than the Republican in their district. But unfortunately for Democrats, younger voters were significantly underrepresented in the group of Americans who turned out to vote.

On the other hand, older Americans (aged 50 and older) were more likely to vote Republican, and thus their disproportionately heavy turnout at the polls worked in the Republicans' favor. The leaning of older Americans toward Republicans occurred despite the fact that Democrats thought they had an issue of great appeal to senior citizens in their opposition to the Bush administration proposals on Social Security privatization.

The Republicans also did better in the South, among those with higher incomes, and -- interestingly -- among men and women who are married. The Democrats had a decisive edge among unmarried voters, particularly unmarried women.

The voting patterns by education are fascinating. Republicans generally do better among those with higher levels of education -- up to a point. Among those with postgraduate degrees -- the "professional class" -- Democrats had the edge this year. It's this Democratic advantage among professionals that forms one of the rationales used by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira in their book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, to predict that the United States will soon begin to tilt more toward the Democratic Party. Only time will tell, of course, just how accurate their predictions will be.

The Impact of President Bush

The Republican turnout advantage in this year's midterm elections was no surprise. In recent history, Republicans have been more likely to vote than Democrats, based in part on the demographic voting patterns described above (that is, older and college-educated Americans are traditionally more likely to vote, groups that tend to be Republican). In this election, however, the Republican turnout advantage did not manifest itself until late in the campaign. Gallup's data show that Republicans began to pay more attention to the campaign on the weekend before the election, and thus these energized Republicans moved disproportionately into the likely voter pool.

This last-minute surge toward the GOP coincided with the heavy campaigning schedule of a popular president, and our data suggest this had a real impact on the election outcome.

President George W. Bush's job approval rating averaged 66% in October. This is roughly 10 points above average for all presidents since World War II. But a high job approval rating for an incumbent president does not automatically translate into gains for that president's party in midterm elections. In fact, the party of the sitting president generally loses seats in midterm elections, regardless of the president's job approval rating.

Ronald Reagan had a robust 63% job approval rating in 1986, yet his party lost five seats. John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1962 and 1954 both had job approval ratings of 61%, but the Democrats lost four seats in 1962 and the Republicans lost 18 seats in 1954. In fact, the only president with an above-average job approval rating whose party did not lose seats in the midterm elections was Bill Clinton in 1998. (Clinton, in the middle of the impeachment controversy, had the highest job approval rating of any president since World War II on the eve of the midterm elections -- 66%. The Democrats gained five seats that year. )

So Bush's high approval rating this year does not, in and of itself, explain why the Republicans did so well in the elections. Two specific factors seemed to have been most important in allowing Bush to translate his popularity into vote gains for his party: 1) his active campaigning, and 2) the war on terrorism. Next week's article will provide a discussion of how and why these factors affected the 2002 elections, and whether the Republicans will be able to repeat their 2002 success in 2004.

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