Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Comparing the 1942 US Mid-Term Election With 2010

It is often useful to compare current elections to past ones and I'd like to do that for the upcoming 2010 US mid-term election. No, not 1994, although I’m sure many commentators will make the comparison. Instead I’d like to I’d like to point out some striking parallels 2010 has towards the 1942 election.

First off, just as in 1942 we have a Democratic President with a large Democratic majority that he will wish to protect. That majority is in a vulnerable position, having to justify itself on both the international and the domestic front against an opposition that can blame the Democratic Party for many problems; problems that do not have easy or quick solutions. Being out of power can be an attraction in and of itself, for as Will Rogers, a comedian of the time, put it, “The more you read and observe about this politics thing, you got to admit that each party is worse than the other. The one that's out always looks the best!” (Augarde 182). Voters simply don’t need as much information to vote against the President’s party (Tufte 826).
After the Democratic Party lost the election of 1942, the increase in Republican representatives allowed the Republicans to reach an informal alliance with conservative Democrats that effectively stopped further liberal social policies from being enacted on the home front. In all probability, we will see a similar occurrence after the 2010 elections, regardless of if the Republicans reach the magic 51% or not.

Overview of Mid-term Elections in General

The party of the sitting President suffering some type of reversal in a midterm election has been a highly common event throughout most of American history (Abramowitz and Segal, “Determinants” 433). After the Civil War, there have been only three elections (1934, 1998, and 2002) in which the parties of the Presidents did not lose seats in the House during a midterm election. This is the most fundamental fact of midterm elections and various theories have been proposed for why this pattern exists. The most popular explanations include; the popularity of the President (Kernell 47; Marra 541), public displeasure with Presidential performance in the first years of a term (Erikson 1011), economic circumstances (Tufte 824), changes in the demographics of the voters who turn out in a Presidential verses a midterm election (A. Campbell 409; J. Campbell 100), evaluation of the President’s party by the voters (Abramowitz, Cover, and

Norpoth, “The President’s Party” 574). What is striking about these explanations is that they do not heavily weight the actual actions of Congress as a reason for the defeat. This makes sense given how strong the trend is for the President’s party to lose seats, and how this trend holds regardless of if the President’s Party controls congress or not. If the macro conditions influencing a President’s party were able to be easily overcome by the actions of Congress, it stands to reason that there would be more than three exceptions to the trend.
Overview of the 1942 Mid-term Elections

The Democratic Party suffered attacks from the Republican Party and low turnout among their supporters in 1942 (Chapman 198). They were not in a position to run the war on a partisan basis, nor could they claim partisan credit for war related achievements, but they could and were blamed at elections for the frustrations, shortages, and inconveniences that were caused by the war. The Republicans could criticize the unpopular reforms, blame defeats on the Democratic Party, and thank business for the increases in production, all while receiving increased support from those who were tiring of the strains and dislocations of war (Young 13). This put them at a structural advantage over the Democratic Party who had to face the danger of being punished for being the party in power (Tufte 812).
Factors in the Defeat

Resentment of Bureaucracy

Although we tend to think of World War II in terms of grand sweeping events, the people who were living through it, whether in the home front or on the front lines, had to actually go through the experience on a day-by-day basis, so it is not surprising that they were concerned with day to day worries, like dealing with the new bureaucracies that sprang up during the war. A quick list of just those that stemmed from the Office of Emergency Management; the Office of War Information, Procurement Division of the Treasury Department, Civil Service Commission, Public Buildings Administration, and the Office of Price Administration is complex even to the historian who has made the war years their area of focus. How much more confusing would they appear to the average civilian of the time? It was a rare American who was instinctively in favor of new bureaucracies, while plenty of Americans were committed to abolishing ‘bureaucracy” (Brinkley 141). This hurt the Democratic Party, as they had to defend the creation of these new bureaucracies. Especially opposed to the new bureaucracies were small business owners who often found the paperwork from these agencies too complex (Lingeman 104) and who often saw the contracts going to their bigger competitors who were better equipped to handle the demands of those new bureaucracies.

In regards to 2010, the Democratic Party is also likely to be punished by the electorate for the creation of a vast new bureaucracy that a majority opposed.

Resentment of the Conduct of the War

Polls showed that the first and most important goal of the American people was victory in the war (Blum 13). The Democratic Party was hurt by the scarcity of victories and the prevalence of defeats in eleven months between Pearl Harbor and Election Day. It is therefore not surprising that support for the Democratic Party, as well as President Roosevelt decreased throughout 1942 as defeat after defeat mounted. Polls showed that had the Congressional elections been held in May, the Democratic Party would have gained thirty-eight House seats, by June they would have gained ten, in August they would have lost eight, and by September they would have lost twenty one-seats (Perret 247). When the election came in November, the Democrats ended up losing forty-seven seats (Davis 649). The Republican Party received 51.8 percent of the total Congressional vote, their highest percent in decades (Robinson 141).

Here the Democratic Party is actually in a better position than in 1942 as nothing that has happened in 2010 on the war fronts is as bad as the loss of most of the Pacific to the Japanese in the first six months of 1942 or the continual German victories in Europe before election day in that same year. That being said, worry about the situation in Afghanistan is likely to still hurt them some.

Resentment of the Administration’s Labor Policy

Unfortunately for the Democratic Party, while organized labor was a vital constituency, it was also deeply unpopular with much of the American public. One year before the election, two thirds of the country believed that the delays in the defense program were the fault of labor and the government, not business (Perret 179). Three out of four Americans were in favor of a complete ban on the right to strike, regardless of cause, and regardless of whether the strike was in a defense industry (Perret 177). In a Gallup poll the most frequent answer given to the question “What . . . is the chief cause of strikes?” was “unjust demands of workers” while the second most frequent answer was “labor leaders who seek personal power” (Brinkley 215).

In 2010 organized labor is still unpopular with large segments of the American people and is still seen as a key Democratic constituency, although these days it is more often associated with public organized labor than private organized labor.

One of the central reasons for the Democratic Party's poor showing in the 1942 election is that union members voted more, both relatively and absolutely, in 1944 than they did in 1942 (Blum 252). The relatively low turnout of labor was a major factor in the Democratic setback on Election Day (Lingeman 347). The Democrats took measures from 1940 to 1942 that could not help but alienate this vital voting block and while They did not alienate them enough to drive them to the Republicans, they did alienate them enough to make them vote in fewer numbers in the 1942 election than they had in 1940, or would again in 1944 (Blum 252; Lingeman 347). In this way it might be argued that the Democratic Party got the worst possible outcome, in that most Americans associated them with (the unpopular) organized labor, but organized labor did not regard them highly enough to turn out in force because the war caused the Roosevelt Administration to take actions that were not seen to be in the best interests of organized labor.

It remains to be seen in organized labor will turn out in full force for the Democratic Party in 2010 but it is highly likely that many who are displeased with organized labor will vote against the Democratic Party at least partly because they associate that party with organized labor.

Backlash by Many Voters Against Liberalism

According to opinion polls, throughout the war years there was rising support for the abolition of most New Deal agencies, a deepening dislike of the conduct of labor unions and their leaders, an increasing desire for laws that would outlaw strikes, a growing sentiment in support of business and resentment of government regulation, and a complete lack of strong grassroots movements attacking the centralization of wealth and desiring more social protection for the average citizen that were so prevalent in the 1930’s (Brinkley 142). All of these trends show a growing rejection of liberalism by many Americans.

One of the chief forms of rejection of a heavy state was through the rejection of higher taxes that would be necessary for such a state. Individual taxpayers, corporate taxpayers, and the majority of Congress resisted higher taxes in 1942. Given a strong degree of unity among those three groups in opposing significant tax increases and the division among Roosevelt’s advisers, it is not surprising that many attempts to increase taxes failed (Blum 228). In the end, the Americans paid a far lower rate than the citizens of any other major belligerent in World War II. This showed that even in the midst of a global war, Americans were not willing to burden themselves with as heavy a tax plan as Britain, Germany, or Japan (Blum 242). The US was determined to fight as financially painless a war as possible and thus in the realm of taxes, the advantage did not lay with the liberals but with the conservatives (Young 107).

Today in 2010 the rising opposition to increasing the tax rates is quite strong and powerful.

Backlash by Liberals Against the Administration

Before the US entered the war, liberals worried about the loss of civil liberties that would almost inevitably happen because of the demands of wartime (Perret 87). When war did come and civil liberties were indeed curtailed those opposed to such curtailments would have been disillusioned with the Democratic Party, as such curtailments came about under a Democratic administration.

In 2010 the failure to close Guantanamo Bay or repeal the Patriot Act is also likely to disillusion many people who voted Democrat in 2008.

Conservative Rally

Some historians, like Kenneth Sydney Davis, author of the definitive five volume biography of FDR, blame "the flood of partisan propaganda from the Right" for large numbers of voters deciding to vote for Republican candidates in the 1942 election (653). But we must ask ourselves why that propaganda would be successful in 1942 in a way that it was not in any election since before the Great Depression.

One reason is that the Republicans and conservatives in general, were highly motivated in 1942. The entrance of the US into WWII seems to have raised Republican fears about the dangers the Democratic Party and President Roosevelt posed to democracy in the United States. Their fear proved to be a powerful motivational force (Blum 221). Those fears were not helped by some of the more extreme proposals that were floated about in 1942. President Roosevelt gave a speech in which he proposed that, “In these days when every available dollar should go into the war effort . . . no personal income should exceed $25,000 per year after payment of taxes” (Davis 463). Although in the technical sense this was not a danger to Democracy itself, many felt that it was and the idea of a complete cap on a person’s income was not popular and was easily and soundly defeated (Davis 628). There was simply not enough support in the nation for new radical liberal programs (Blum 13). However, its mere proposal was enough to scare many at a time when there was not a free market as they had known it, but rather only a controlled one (Blum 139).

Not only were Republicans and many independents afraid on the nationwide level, but they were also afraid on the local and personal level. Many of the Republicans elected in 1942 were small local business owners (Blum 234) and it was precisely this group who found themselves largely shut out of war production (Brinkley 192). Small business clamored for relief, but they found the head of the Smaller War Plants Corporation, the government agency in charge of promoting the effective utilization of small businesses producing war material and essential civilian supplies, to be patronizing and felt that small businesses were only offered “crumbs” instead of a “full meal” (Blum 127).

Small business often represented the conservative wing of the Republicans who felt that Wendell Willkie and the Eastern liberals were responsible for their failure in 1940. The mid-west conservatives largely managed to regain control of the party by the 1942 election and their goal was to block new social reform, contain the President’s power, defeat his party at the polls, and if possible roll back some of the New Deal (Blum 221). By and large, they accomplished all of these goals after the election of 1942 gave a coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats control over both houses of Congress (Blum 39; Moore 376). Some even argue that Congress was in the hands of a conservative coalition as early as 1938 (Jeffries, “The ‘New’ New Deal” 405) but the evidence for such an early alliance is weak.

This coalition accomplished many of their goals even before the election, which helped to show their base what changes they could expect to see in the event of a Republican victory. In 1942 the Civilian Conservation Corps, was given funds only for its liquidation, and soon the Rural Electrification Administration, Farm Security Administration, and the domestic branch of Office of War Information all got their budgets gutted, despite efforts by President Roosevelt to prevent this (Blum 234, 239). These accomplishments showed the conservatives had rallied from their nadir of the Great Depression.

By contrast conservative was not hurt nearly as much by the economic situation of 2008 to the present as it was in the Great Depression. Today more people self-identify as a conservative than self-identify as liberal in 50 out of the 50 states. Yet with the Tea Party movement and the strong showing of conservative Republicans in the primary elections there is no doubt that we are also seeing a large conservative rally today.

Structural Factors in the Democratic Defeat

The Democratic Party faced a difficult Congressional election in 1942 for structural reasons, which is to say due to the very nature of mid-term elections, the most fundamental aspect of which is that the President's party tends to lose seats in a mid-term election (Zeidenstein 272).

Furthermore, studies have shown that the Republican Party has a relative advantage in midterm elections in comparison to the Democratic Party (Coleman 497) due to the different nature of each party’s bases. Other factors being equal, the Republican Party just appears to perform better than the Democratic Party in mid-term elections under comparable conditions (Coleman 510).

Again we see a situation in 1942 that favors the Republicans in 2010.
Lack of Leadership in the Democratic Campaign

Roosevelt may have felt that as his interventions in congressional races in 1938 had yielded only mixed results, that any attempt to do so in 1942 would not prove worth the political cost (Blum 225) so he was largely absent from the campaign of 1942. After the election, a critic of this strategy pointed out that "Wilson had called for a Democratic Congress in 1918 and lost seats in the House and Senate; Roosevelt had not called for anything and lost twice as many [seats]" (Davis 653).

The actual head of the Democratic Congressional Elections Committee, Patrick H. Dewey, was not a very inspirational leader (Young 187). He did not handle the national stage well, and with the party split over many issues, he allowed the Democratic campaign to devolve into a series of local contests with no national strategy.

President Obama appears to be taking an active role in the 2010 election now, but he is not nearly as popular as FDR was in 1942 so this may not be as useful as if FDR had actively campaigned.

Besides a distracted de facto campaign leader and an ineffective de jure campaign leader, being the ruling party of an unpopular Congress hindered the Democratic Party. The 77th Congress may very well have been the most despised political body in twentieth-century American history for the simple reason that it was blamed for everything and given credit for nothing (Perret 248). It funded lend-lease before the war to an unprecedented degree, it passed a peace-time draft, it declared war against the mightiest foes the US has ever had to face, it spent a higher percentage of GDP than any previous Congress, and yet no one looked to it for leadership (Perret 249).

The Democratic Congress running for reelection today passed both the Stimulus Bill and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) but these are likely to be hindrance in 2010 as not many Democratic candidates are championing there support of those two major acts.

The Democratic Party’s nationwide campaign tried to make an issue of the Republican’s desire to avoid involvement in the war from 1939 to 1941. This was an attempt to run on the past, to use the “isolationist card” against those Republicans who had been against increased involvement in the European war. That effort should be considered nothing less than a colossal failure as the election showed that being a pre-war isolationist did not decrease one’s odds of being re-elected. It was in the Middle West, the traditional seat of American isolationism, that the Republicans made the most gains in the 1942 election (Blum 299). Of the 115 isolationists in Congress only 5 were not re-elected in 1942 (Kennedy 782). These re-elected isolationists included President Roosevelt’s domestic enemies, such as Congressman Hamilton Fish, whose constituents included FDR himself.

The Democrats did not have to fear that isolationism as a policy would triumph in the short term. As Senator Brooks said, "Isolation was sunk at Pearl Harbor” (Young 169). By making isolationism an issue in the 1942 election they allowed themselves to spend precious time and effort on what was a non-issue and therefore failed to adequately confront home front issues that were most voters’ primary concern (Blum 29).

The Democratic Party made too much of their commitment to internationalism, at a time when nine out of ten Americans could name no provisions of the much publicized Atlantic Charter (Blum 46). Unlike many New Dealers they replaced, the Republican and Southern Democratic Congressmen that would come to power in 1942 were not, by and large, idea men. The closest they came to an ideology was that they were committed to abolishing ‘bureaucracy,” but this was closer to the national mood than the plank on which the Democratic Party ran (Brinkley 141).

Without a doubt, there was a shift away from the Democratic Party and towards the Republicans (Robinson 141). This was brought about through no small measure due to the mistake of the Democratic Party in relying too much on having been right in the 1930’s over ways to combat the Great Depression and intervene in Europe and not enough on addressing the current problems caused by the war effort. The voters would vote based on how they perceived their interests to be in 1942, not on how their interests were in 1932 (Davis 126).

This is one of the most important lessons that modern day politicians can take from the 1942 election. “What are you doing for me now or in the future?” is a question that voters often care about more than “What have you done for me in the past?”

It is my contention that efforts by the Democratic Party to run on blaming the Republicans for the economic crisis of 2008 will largely fail. If a political party does not adequately addressing current concerns it is likely to be detrimental to its electoral efforts.

Impact of Partisan Drive and Apathy on the 1942 Election

The majority of voters in 1942 voted along party lines with a minority breaking their party identification over various issues (Harding 41). An accepted model of the congressional electorate is one in which partisan loyalties are the primary basis for voting behavior (Brow 455). It is therefore not the percentage of people that change their mind that matters, but rather a more important factor is how well each party mobilizes its supporters and gets them out to vote. The chief demonstration that the Republicans had a more mobilized base than the Democratic Party was that a higher percentage of those Republicans who voted, voted Republican (86 percent) than the percentage of those Democrats who voted, voted Democratic (80 percent) in 1942 (Harding 42).

We must also be wary of overstating how great the change was. In no section of America did the Republican Party gain more than 10 percent of the popular vote between 1934 and 1942 (Harding 58). Instead the people who returned to the Republicans in 1942 were mostly those who had never been natural Democrats, but rather those who turned to it when their economic interests demanded it, and then abandoned them when that was no longer the case (Harding 57).

We could see much the same thing in 2010 where many voters who were normally Republican voted Democrat in 2008 because of the economic crisis, and then returned to the Republicans in 2010 over the perceived failure of the Democratic Party to address their needs. It is also likely that Republican voters will also vote in greater number in 2010 than Democratic voters will.


In the next two years after that election of 1942 the House and the Senate would both interpret the results of the 1942 election as a mandate against the New Deal (Blum 244). Besides the pure loss of seats, the Democratic Party also saw its own internal ranks shift to the right, as it was mainly the Northern liberal Democrats who were defeated in the largest numbers and the Southern conservative Democrats who were hardly touched (Davis 649).

As David Lawrence would write in US News, an unofficial coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats would “pluck all budding social reforms from future war legislation" (Davis 653), and indeed that is largely what would come to pass.

Despite the best efforts of President Roosevelt, numerous New Deal Agencies did not survive the first session of the new Congress (Davis 653). Congress would pour through every wartime measure looking for anything that could remotely be labeled as a continuation of the New Deal and would kill it on committee or on the floor. Congress passed no significant social reform measures during the next two years (Lingeman 344).

If we look at the number of House Democratic victories over Republican victories in terms of votes in the House during the war years we see that it was 7:1 in 1941, 1:1 in 1942, 1:2 in 1943, 1:2 in 1944 (Young 225). In the Senate, the ratio of Democratic victories to Republican Victories was 9:1 in 1941, 2:1 in 1942, 3:2 in 1943, 3:2 in 1944 (Young 225). This shows us that the Republicans were definitely in power in the House in 1943 and 1944, and were not far from being equal in the Senate during those same years. This clearly shows that despite not being an actual majority in either House during those years, the 1942 Election put the Republicans in charge, nonetheless for crucial years in which they could stop or roll back the New Deal.

In 2010 we could very well see much the same thing happen, regardless of weather the Republicans actually take back the House and Senate or not. It is likely that the Democratic Party will see a sharp rightward shift after the 2010 election and we are unlikely to see much new social legislation and we may very well see some rollback of existing legislation depending upon the size of the victory.

Lessons for the 2010 Mid-Term Election and Future Mid-Term Elections

If we define wartime mid-term elections as mid-term elections occurring at a time when the nation’s troops are in active combat roles against significant forces, and exclude the wars against Native Americans which would make virtually every mid-term election in the 18th and 19th century a war time mid-term election, this will be the 11th wartime mid-term election in the nation’s history. The US has previously experienced them in 1814 (War of 1812), 1846 (Mexican-American War), 1862 (Civil War), 1918 (World War I), 1942 (World War II), 1950 (Korean War), 1966 (Vietnam War), 1970 (Vietnam War), 1974 (Vietnam War), 2002 (Afghanistan War), 2006 (Afghanistan War & Iraq War).

While it is beyond the scope of this work to seek overarching themes from wartime mid-term elections, there is much that the Democratic Party can learn from its defeat in 1942 that will be applicable in the 2010 election.

The most important lessons for the modern day Democratic Party to learn from the election are these; do not run on the past, involve a popular President in a campaign as much as you can, recognize that the party in power is at a disadvantage during a mid-term, and do not expect members of your base to stay there if doing so is no longer in their perceived interest.

The Democratic Party in World War II expected that because many of its Republican opponents had been isolationists they would be punished during the election. This was not the case because voters cared more about what a politician was doing for them now and what they would do in the future. The current Democratic Party should make sure that the 2010 election is run on 2010 issues, not who was right in 2008 or even who was right in 2002.

The Democratic Party in World War II did not involve their popular President in the election. It is unlikely that President Obama taking an active role in the campaign in 2010 will harm the war effort to any significant degree. He must keep a firm hand on the campaign and make sure that it is run smoothly and well instead of putting it in charge of an incompetent subordinate, as President Roosevelt did.

The Democratic Party in 1942 had a sitting President during a mid-term election. The normal outcome for such a state is a defeat. The Democratic Party of 2010 must recognize that just by the nature of its being in power, it is facing a very difficult fight in a mid-term election.

In World War II the coalition that had brought the Democratic Party’s victory seemed remarkably stable, yet the stresses and strains of war quickly caused it to crack and fall apart as members began to view either voting Democratic as unimportant or voting Republican as being in their better interest.

In 2010 many of the people who supported the Democrats in 2008 will begin to view either voting Democratic as unimportant or voting Republican as being in their better interest. An all out effort must be made to convince the voting public that the Democratic Party can serve them well in prosperity as well as adversity.

To the Republicans, their best strategy in light of 1942 is to recognize that they are in a more favorable position than the Democrats but to not get cocky over this fact. They too have to run on the issues of today. The average voters concerns in 1942 were not those of lofty ideals, but rather more domestic concerns and the same holds true today. If the Republican Party does not adequately present itself as prepared to meet those concerns it will fail to achieve its potential for full victory.


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