When we go to the polls, we are doing two things at once. Pragmatically speaking, we are hoping to influence government policies and alter the behavior of the legislators and officials who design and implement them. Symbolically speaking, however, we’re doing something more profound and less practical: expressing our collective verdict on the state of the nation. The people’s voice is supposed to replace divine judgment as the ultimate yea or nay on the government in power: vox populi, vox dei.
Presidential elections still fulfill both of these functions. In the modern era, though, midterm elections have come to serve mainly as expressions of the public mood. Putting aside especially popular or unpopular local candidates, they offer a snapshot judgment on the president’s performance—more like a midterm exam than a final that really counts. Voter turnout reflects these diminished stakes. Even though control of both the House and the Senate could change, and the late Bush years are politically charged times by any measure, we’ll be lucky if more than 40 percent of the American electorate bothers to vote—as opposed to 60 percent in 2004.
Under the right circumstances, of course, a strong midterm result can directly influence policy making. The 1994 elections that brought Newt Gingrich to power in the House decisively shaped the remaining years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, pushing him further to the right and bringing out his latent tendency to govern every day as if an election were being held the next. And even a lame-duck president can be affected by a clear midterm message if he wants to see his vice president elected and preserve his historical legacy.