KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— The 1998 election has invariably come up a lot as House Democrats consider whether to impeach President Donald Trump.
— That’s because Republicans had high expectations for that election but ended up flopping.
— While impeachment probably did hurt the Republicans in some districts, it may have been that Clinton’s popularity in a time of peace and prosperity would have insulated Democrats from big losses even if the GOP had held off on impeachment.
Reconsidering the 1998 midterm
The Democrats’ 40-seat net gain in the House last fall was the latest example of the midterm election serving as a check on the White House. Since the Civil War, there have now been 40 midterms, and the president’s party has lost ground in the House in 37 of those elections.
Yet one of those exceptions was recent, and it’s an election that has been and will be referenced a lot as House Democrats consider whether to impeach President Donald Trump: 1998.
That year, Democrats won four more seats than they had won in 1996, providing a rare exception to the usual midterm rule. That election took place under the shadow of impeachment: Independent counsel Kenneth Starr submitted his report laying out 11 possible grounds for impeaching President Bill Clinton in September, and the GOP-controlled House voted to open impeachment proceedings against Clinton in early October. As Democrats ponder whether to open such proceedings against President Donald Trump, the specter of 1998 hangs over the choice.
The conventional wisdom about 1998 is that the Republicans were on track for big gains, but their pursuit of impeachment prevented them from realizing them. Clinton biographer Michael Tomasky summed up the pre-midterm thinking this way: “it was expected that the Republicans would augment their majorities, and probably by a considerable amount. Rarely in politics had anything been so obvious.” That assessment was informed by history, and not just the usual midterm pattern cited above: This was a “sixth-year itch” election, a midterm conducted during a second consecutive term of a party’s control of the White House. There were some catastrophically bad “sixth-year itch” elections in the recent memory of the time: 1938, 1958, 1966, and 1974 all qualified (later, 2006 and perhaps 2014 also would). The president’s party in those years were all undone by overreach, scandal, war, recession, or some combination of those factors. It may have seemed that Clinton’s scandal could have been the trigger for a similar result in 1998, but that didn’t happen, in part because Republicans misplayed their hand on impeachment.
So the argument now is that because impeachment didn’t work for Republicans in 1998, it won’t work for Democrats in 2020. That may or may not be the case if Democrats do pursue impeachment, but if 1998 is going to keep coming up, that election itself merits a closer look.
While it’s impossible to know what would’ve happened in some alternate universe where Republicans did not open impeachment proceedings of Clinton prior to the election, there’s some reason to believe that the effects of that decision were not as electorally significant as popularly remembered.
The GOP’s failure to make gains in the House or the Senate came as a surprise to many. Two days after the elections, a New York Times piece detailing the fallout opened as follows: “Stunned by the Democratic resurgence in the midterm elections, Congressional Republicans tore into one another yesterday over who was to blame for their failure to make the traditional opposition party gains in an off-year election.” House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R, GA-6), whose confrontational style helped set up the first GOP House majority in four decades, would announce his resignation a couple of days later. “It seemed somehow the ultimate irony of this strange political year, the year stigmatized by President Clinton’s affair with Monica S. Lewinsky. Instead of Bill Clinton being the one to fall, it was Newt Gingrich,” the Times observed. It later emerged that Gingrich had been carrying on an affair with a House staffer and the man who was to be Gingrich’s successor, Rep. Bob Livingston (R, LA-1), also admitted to infidelity and announced his resignation during impeachment debates in the House a few days before Christmas in 1998. Needless to say, these revelations did not bolster GOP efforts to actually remove Clinton from office, which never seemed likely anyway. Republicans only had 55 Senate seats, so they needed several Democrats to back impeachment in a Senate trial to reach the two-thirds support needed to remove Clinton.
As it was, the Republican House would eventually vote to impeach Clinton, but Clinton easily survived in the Senate as all Democrats voted not guilty and a handful of Republicans voted not guilty on one or both charges. Clinton left office very popular, but he was unable to hand off the White House to Vice President Al Gore, who narrowly lost the Electoral College to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in 2000.
Following his comfortable reelection victory in 1996, Clinton’s approval rating was consistently very strong throughout 1997 and 1998, even as he would deal with personal scandal: He spent 1997 mostly in the high 50s in approval, according to FiveThirtyEight’s historical average, and in 1998 his approval was in the 60s, even after reports of his affair emerged in January 1998. The economy was strong and the nation was at peace. These are not the sort of conditions that were suggestive of a Republican wave. But Republicans had high expectations anyway. “Gingrich spent the fall boasting that he foresaw his Republicans gaining as many as forty House seats,” Tomasky wrote.
Was such a wave ever truly plausible? There are reasons to believe it wasn’t.
As we just noted, Clinton’s approval rating was consistently high throughout his second term. Thus, one of the usual contributors to a midterm wave — an unpopular president — was missing from the equation. So was a backlash to legislative overreach, as Clinton had lost the House and the Senate in 1994 and thus could hew to the political middle.
Additionally, there’s not much sign from public polling that the battle for the House in the 1998 cycle appeared to be a Republican rout but then snapped back to the Democrats. House generic ballot polls from Gallup/CNN/USA Today, Pew Research, and NBC News/Wall Street Journal in 1997 all found the Democrats leading, according to a compilation of such polls from PollingReport.com. (One has to account for the reality that the House generic ballot generally overstated the Democratic advantage both back then and even for much of the recent 2014 and 2016 cycles. Still, it’s not like there was some obvious indicator from polls that the GOP was set up for a wave year in 1998 given the 1997 polling.)
From mid-August through Election Day, the average of 20 generic ballot polls in the PollingReport database showed an almost exact tie. As it was, the GOP won the House national popular vote by about a point and won a narrow 223-212 majority in 1998.
One also has to consider the historical context of the time. Big midterm swings have been common in recent years, as the presidential out party has gained double-digits’ worth of House seats in each of the last four midterms. The majority has changed hands in three of those elections — Democrats won it in 2006 and 2018, and Republicans in 2010 — and the average loss has been about three-dozen seats in each midterm, an average dragged down by the GOP picking up only 13 seats in 2014, a gain that almost certainly would’ve been bigger had the existing Republican majority not already been 234 seats (as it was, the Republicans would hold 247 seats after the 2014 election, their biggest majority since right before the Great Depression).
But big swings were not as common in the late 20th century. From 1978 through 2002, there were several midterms where very little changed in the house. That era contained two of the three elections since the Civil War where the president’s party netted House seats (1998 and 2002), and two other years (1986 and 1990) where the president’s party only suffered losses in the single digits. The Democrats lost only 15 seats in 1978 under President Jimmy Carter (the real storm would come in the Reagan Revolution two years later, although Democrats retained the House majority even then). In 1982, President Reagan’s Republicans lost 26 seats, not too bad considering Reagan’s approval was weak, the nation was in the midst of a bad recession, and Democratic gains were significantly padded by gerrymanders in several states. The only real midterm wave election in that quarter-century span was 1994, when the GOP netted 54 seats and the House majority for the first time since the 1952 election. But Clinton was legitimately unpopular in 1994. He was not unpopular in 1998 despite his troubles, nor was Reagan in 1986 or George H.W. Bush in 1990.
The Republicans may also have been capped out in the House at least to some degree. They followed up their fabulous gains in 1994 with only a minor three-seat net loss in 1996, as they continued to gain ground in the historically Democratic but conservative and Republican-trending South while losing some ground in the rest of the nation. American politics can sometimes follow a pattern of “surge and decline,” but Republicans suffered little decline in the House from 1994 to 1996, and Democrats thus had no surge to defend in 1998 after 1996.
Republicans also were still in the midst of translating their potential in the conservative South into electoral reality. At that time, Republicans were still on the wrong side of a Democratic gerrymander in Texas, where Democrats would cling to a majority in the state delegation until newly-empowered state Republicans imposed a new map in advance of the 2004 election. The next big Republican breakthrough in the South would have to wait until 2010, when that GOP wave wiped out many of the last white Democrats from conservative districts.
Meanwhile, Democrats benefited from some key Republican retirements, such as that of moderate Rep. Scott Klug (R, WI-2) in a district based around liberal Madison. Clinton had won the district by 22 points in 1996; Tammy Baldwin (D), now a U.S. senator, would flip the seat in 1998. House elections did not follow presidential voting as closely then as they do now, but part of the 1998 story was Democratic districts like WI-2 coming into line with their presidential partisanship. Democrats also were able to hold some difficult open seats, like IN-9, where Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) had retired and where neither the Democratic or Republican candidate emphasized impeachment.
That said, there definitely is some district-by-district evidence suggesting that the impeachment battle helped Democrats pick up some seats (the anecdotes that follow are from the 2000 edition of the Almanac of American Politics).
In NJ-12, first-term Rep. Mike Pappas (R) recited a poem on the House floor: “Twinkle twinkle, Kenneth Starr, now we see how brave you are. We could not see which way to go, if you did not lead us so.” Rush Holt (D) put the clip in campaign ads and eked out a three-point victory. Impeachment may have made the difference, although Pappas had only won by three points himself in 1996 in a district Clinton had carried by six. Jay Inslee (D), now the governor of Washington state and a 2020 presidential candidate, was in 1998 a former House member who had lost in the 1994 GOP wave. He ran in a different, more Democratic district than the one he had lost four years prior and beat Rep. Rick White (R, WA-1), who himself had beaten another now-familiar name from Washington politics, now-Sen. Maria Cantwell (D), in 1994. Inslee ran ads arguing that “Rick White and Newt Gingrich shouldn’t be dragging us through this.” In suburban Philadelphia’s PA-13, Joe Hoeffel (D) reclaimed another Clinton-won district four years after former Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (D) lost it to Jon Fox (R) in the wake of her famous and decisive vote for Clinton’s budget and tax increase in 1993. Hoeffel stayed away from Clinton but did have Hillary Rodham Clinton campaign for him. Despite the above examples, House Democratic candidates generally did not run ads on impeachment, according to the Almanac; one who did, Chris Gorman (D), narrowly lost to Rep. Anne Northup (R, KY-3) in a Democratic-leaning Louisville-based seat, although the outcome was even closer in 1996, when she had very narrowly defeated a Democratic incumbent. Gingrich, meanwhile, helped orchestrate a late October advertising blitz of key House districts focused on Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky that probably was a miscalculation.
Impeachment did allow some Democrats to break with the national party: for instance, Rep. James Maloney (D, CT-5), who was damaged by campaign finance problems, voted for the GOP motion to hold impeachment hearings; he won narrowly.
Overall, only 17 races in 1998 were decided by five points or less. The Democrats won 10 and the Republicans won seven. Perhaps in the absence of impeachment, the GOP would’ve won the majority of the closer races and could’ve netted seats instead of losing a small number. But even without impeachment they may not have performed way better than they otherwise did.
This is all a long way of saying that while the GOP’s pursuit of impeachment may have hurt them in the House, it’s hard to know definitively whether it made a dramatic difference in the outcome. It may not have, given Clinton’s high approval and conditions of relative peace and prosperity.
What does this all mean for how House Democrats should handle Trump and impeachment? Perhaps it doesn’t really provide much guidance at all. Those who do not want to pursue impeachment can and will point to 1998 as an argument against it, and there’s some evidence to suggest that there was a backlash against the GOP. But it may have been the case that Republicans were not in line for big House gains in any event that year given the broader peace and prosperity the nation was enjoying. And supporters of impeachment can argue that Trump, whose approval is in the low-to-mid 40s, is an easier target than Clinton, whose approval was north of 60% during his impeachment battle.
1998 was also a midterm year, and not one that featured particularly high turnout (38% of those eligible, according to turnout expert Michael McDonald). The next election, 2020, is a presidential year where turnout could eclipse 65%, which would make it the highest turnout of eligible voters since women won the right to vote a century ago. One wonders if impeachment would change the dynamic — it could provide extra motivation to one side or the other (or both), but motivation seems very high already.
This is not intended to be an argument for or against the Democrats pursuing impeachment. Rather, we just wanted to add some context to the circumstances of the last time impeachment was a dominant story in the run-up to an election.
As to the possible effect of impeachment in 2020, it may be instructive to recall Gingrich’s words in the aftermath of his 1998 disappointment. “Things were happening out there that none of us fully understand,” he said.