How Important Are Mid-term Congressional Elections?

For a while now, the political beltway has had its eye firmly focused on next year’s congressional elections, in which Democrats look poised to lose a number of seats. I have repeatedly opined that this focus is misdirected; nobody will remember the results in – say – 2020.

Nevertheless, an opinion without evidence behind it remains just that. Perhaps I am wrong: devastating congressional loses really do negatively impact presidential administrations. Since President Barack Obama’s primary political concern involves his legacy, I decided to investigate the relationship between congressional losses and presidential legacy.

To do this, I graphed two variables: the number of House seats lost in first-term mid-term elections, and approval ratings at the end of the administration’s term. The latter does not perfectly measure legacy; nevertheless it provides a generally accurate barometer. Presidents with poor legacies generally receive poor end-of-term approval ratings, and vice versa. Under a statistically significant relationship, a graph of the two variables might look something like this:

According to this hypothetical result, presidents with strong legacies have fewer seats lost; those with weak legacies have more lost. Below is a table of the actual results:

This translates into a graph as below:

A quick surface glance reveals no apparent pattern between the two variables. If anything, they appear to be purely random. To be sure, however, I ran a correlation analysis of the results. This indicates the degree to which values in one list are associated with values in another.

I found the correlation coefficient to be 0.066187425 – essentially there was no relationship between mid-term elections and presidential legacy. (A test of the hypothetical graph’s values, in contrast, returned a correlation coefficient of 0.976511251.)

What conclusions can be drawn from this? First-term congressional mid-term losses appear to bear no relationship to presidential legacy; their importance is greatly overstated by the Washington beltway. President Barack Obama should worry less about November 2010: that election will have little political effect on his future legacy. Passing an effective health care bill would be well worth the loss of even a hundred congressional seats, both for the country’s sake and for his own political gain.

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