Midterm elections are often rough for the White House, here's why Over the past century, midterm elections have been rough on the party controlling the White House.

The devastating history of midterm elections, for the party in the White House

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Midterm elections are often bad - sometimes, very bad - for sitting presidents. Pres. Obama and the Democrats are pushing voter turnout in the final days before Tuesday's vote. They're also bracing for what could be a rough night of ballot counting. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea has this look at the past that may again be prologue.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It was November 1938. On the eve of that year's midterm elections, Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt called upon the nation to pull together as war loomed in Europe.


PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: Remember that in these grave days in the affairs of the world, we need internal unity - national unity. For the sake of the nation, that is good advice.

GONYEA: But the voters ignored that advice. Their concerns were mostly domestic - frustration with the New Deal, high unemployment, a downturn called the Roosevelt Recession and a general weariness about FDR himself. In the 1938 midterms, Republicans picked up 81 seats in the U.S. House. Susan Dunn is a political historian and author of several books about FDR.

SUSAN DUNN: The Democrats took a real drubbing, and it was truly a stunning reversal after the presidential election of 1936, which was a landslide for FDR.

GONYEA: Now, to 1950...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Home in Independence, Pres. Truman leads the nation to the polls, as Americans turn out in record numbers for a non-presidential election. Mr. Truman appears just as confident as he did two years ago when he engineered the most stunning upset in U.S. political history. But across the nation, it's the Republicans' turn to smile.

GONYEA: By then, smack in the middle of the 20th century, the trend was already long-established. Voters elect a president one year, then two years later, hand the White House a setback in the midterms. And just as predictable is the sitting president trying to frame the election on their own terms, as FDR did in 1938 and as Pres. Reagan does here, ahead of the 1986 midterms.


PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: The choice before the American people this year is of overwhelming importance - whether to hand the government back to the liberals or move forward with the conservative agenda into the 1990s.

GONYEA: Reagan's Republican Party lost the Senate that year. Pres. Clinton also felt the voters' wrath in his first midterm in 1994. The GOP captured the U.S. House, Senate and the majority of governorships in what was dubbed the Republican Revolution.


PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: The American people believe a majority of them and have believed for decades now that a divided government may work better than a united government. As you know, I disagree with that.

GONYEA: There are occasional exceptions to the general rule that the White House takes a beating in midterms. 1998 for Clinton and 2002 for Pres. George W. Bush are notable recent examples, but no modern president has escaped completely. Six years into Bush's presidency, with the Iraq war going badly, voters spoke loudly and clearly.


PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Look, this is a close election. The - if you look at race by race, it was close. The cumulative effect, however, was not too close. It was a thumping.

GONYEA: Which brings us to the current administration - Pres. Obama's first midterm test was 2010. The newly prominent Tea Party and the GOP pushback after passage of Obamacare resulted in a change of course by voters. Republican gains were huge, and Democrats lost the House.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, some election nights are more fun than others. Some are exhilarating. Some are humbling.

GONYEA: He later called it a shellacking. But here's something else presidents tend to say after a humiliating midterm - that they've gotten the message. And as George W. Bush put it...


BUSH: You know, if you focus on the big picture, which, in this case, is our nation and issues we need to work together on, you can get stuff done.

GONYEA: But history also tells us something about just how well that last sentiment has worked out. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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