The Center for Politics’ Director Larry J. Sabato (Col ’74) Andrew Shurtleff/Inside UVA Online

If you don’t like the election results in the United States, just wait a couple of years. In politics the only constant is change, and our elections over the past couple of decades prove it.

The latest installment came Nov. 2, 2010, when American voters applied the brakes to President Obama’s agenda. It was a classic “check-and-balance” election, guaranteed to create gridlock in our system of separation of powers. The Democratic president and the Republican U.S. House of Representatives now have overlapping and contradictory popular mandates.

Welcome to normal. In the 70 years since the beginning of World War II, Americans have switched control of the presidency from one party to another eight times, control of the Senate nine times, and control of the House seven times. Unified party control of both the executive and legislative branches is becoming rare. In 33 of the 65 years since 1945, the parties have shared power in one combination or another, and the 2010 outcome has guaranteed that two more years will be added to the split-control total. In the last 42 years, since President Richard Nixon came to power, there have been just 13 years when one party simultaneously had the White House and majorities of both houses of Congress.

Sweeping change was the order of the latest Election Day. In the House of Representatives, Republicans had their best election in 72 years—since 1938, when Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt suffered his sixth-year itch, and Republicans gained 80 seats. Amazingly, though, the Republicans still failed to take control of the heavily Democratic House in the New Deal era.

House of Representative seats before and after the November 2010 elections

In 2010, Republicans had much better luck since they were starting from a higher seat level. The GOP needed to gain 39 House seats to take control of the lower chamber—218 seats is a simple majority—and the party easily surpassed that number by 24 seats. With 242 total seats in the new House, the Republicans secured their largest majority since the 246 seats they won in 1946, the first post-World War II election. Even in the big 1994 Republican congressional breakthrough, the total of GOP seats had been only 232. This was also the worst year for House incumbents in more than three decades. With 58 incumbents losing their seats (four in the primary and 54 in the general), just 85 percent of House members who sought another term were reelected. By contrast, 38 incumbents lost in 1994, a year often thought of as a killing field for Democratic congressmen.

Despite the Republicans’ success in the House, the Senate proved a much tougher nut to crack. Democrats were defending a large 59-seat majority in the 100-member Senate. This meant that Republicans needed to gain 10 seats to win control, because Democratic Vice President Joseph Biden would break a 50-50 tie in his party’s favor. While it has been done on occasion, it is difficult to secure that many seat turnovers with only 37 Senate seats on the ballot. While Republicans held all 19 of their seats, they were able to gain just six of the 10 Democratic seats they needed for control, winning in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. While delighted with their victories, senior Republicans privately rued the fact that they could have achieved at least a 50-50 Senate tie had stronger candidates been nominated in states such as Colorado, Delaware and Nevada. In all of those states, the new “Tea Party” faction of the GOP overwhelmed more mainstream candidates in party primaries to nominate contenders that were too far to the right, and too ill-prepared for the rigors of modern campaigning, to win general elections.

For all the legitimate attention the congressional elections received, the contests at the state level may have more long-term meaning. In adding six net governorships (seven counting Florida, which flipped from Independent-controlled to Republican), the GOP climbed to control of 29 states, including the powerhouses of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio. This Republican statehouse total was the most in a decade. On the other hand, Democrats kept 20 statehouses, and captured the biggest prize of the night, gargantuan California.

The turnover at the state legislative level was nothing short of astounding, and here the Republicans could do virtually all the crowing. The GOP picked up about 700 state legislative seats out of the 3,920 on the ballot. This enabled the Republicans to grab 20 state legislative chambers in 14 states.

The midterm election has great meaning for governance over the next two years. But what does it predict for the 2012 presidential contest? Oh, about as much as Barack Obama’s near-landslide victory in 2008 forecast the giant GOP win of 2010.

Every year is shaped by the fundamental forces of politics and the economy. Unpredictable events will be in the saddle again when Americans next go to the polls.


Larry J. Sabato is the director of the UVA Center for Politics and editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, online since 2002 as a free weekly update on U.S. elections. Over the last five elections, the Crystal Ball has predicted all races for president (Electoral College), U.S. Senate, state governors, and House of Representatives with 98 percent accuracy. In August 2010, the Crystal Ball became the first nonpartisan forecasting group in the nation to predict that Republicans would win the House of Representatives by a comfortable margin.

Every two years, the center joins with Pearson/Longman of New York to publish a detailed analysis of the national elections. The seventh volume in this series, Pendulum Swing, will be out in January.