It was November, 1942. A year earlier the Japanese Empire had struck at Pearl Harbor and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had finally entered World War II. Although in May of 1942 the US was kicked out of the Philippines by the Japanese, with Gen. MacArthur retreating to Australia, in June of 1942 the US wins a major battle against the Japanese at Midway. Still, in fall of 1942 the long, bloody battle for Guadalcanal in The South Pacific had not been decided. The economy had finally begun improving after the long years of Depression. The unemployment rate was reduced from 14.6 percent in 1940 to only 4.7 percent in 1942. Roosevelt faced midterm elections.
Would you really choose that moment to more or less return to power the party that had caused the Great Depression?
We might look back on these years of the “Greatest Generation” as heroic, and Roosevelt as unbeatable. But you know what? His Democrats lost the popular vote, losing big in the House of Representatives, and Republicans picked up 47 seats. Because of the way things were then districted, the Democrats did hold on to the House by a slim margin. But they were deprived of a comfortable majority (left with just a 13 seat margin). As the Los Angeles Times noted the day after the election, Roosevelt was left without a real majority, because he always faced defections on any vote. The paper breathlessly noted the dramatic fall of Democratic dominance from the party’s commanding position in 1936.
Remember, this is almost a year into World War II, troops are fighting and dying in the Pacific, and the economy is looking up. Roosevelt and his party should have benefited from his being a war president, and should have gotten some credit for having saved the country from the worst economic crisis of all time. Instead, the voters punished him.
Timothy Y. C. Cotton explains in his article, “War and American Democracy: Electoral Costs of the Last Five Wars,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Dec., 1986), pp. 616-635:
‘ The attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 brought home to Americans the sure knowledge that the aggressively expanding totalitarian powers on either side of them presented a real threat. At the time of the midterm election of 1942, the war effort was not going well. Voters seemed to turn from the Democrats, who were still enjoying the benefits of the recovery of the economy from the Depression. Despite strong economic growth in 1942, the GOP was able to cut substantially into the Democratic majority in Congress.
The lack of progress in battle was one reason the GOP fared better in 1942. Another was the imposition of wartime controls on the domestic economy. “During 1942 the Office of Price Administration instituted ten major rationing programs, while shortages in still exempt goods
drove their prices up, encouraged hoarding and forebode further rationing to come” (Blum, 1976: 227). Economic growth was being funneled into the war effort rather than consumer goods as part of the effort to build up the nation’s military strength. Labor unions were
obliged to lessen their demands and not to strike, given the critical need for maintaining the supply of the tools of war. Workers became resentful, however, thinking that they were being taken advantage of by management. These factors conspired to turn the voters against the
Democrats in 1942.’
Of course, the dynamics were very different than today, with the Afghanistan War even chancier than the then Pacific one, and with government intervening in the economy in different ways (bank bailouts, briefly taking over an auto company, stubbornly high unemployment closet to that of 1940 than that of 1942, health care reform).
An even more interesting story could be told about the 1946 midterms, when Democratic President Harry Truman, who had, like won World War II, saw the Republicans pick up an astonishing 55 seats and take control of the House. People were tired of long years of war and sacrifice and the Republicans promised prosperity through unleashing the free market.
But that’s American politics. Presidents often lose big in midterms, and especially when the public is nervous about foreign wars and domestic economic uncertainty. In a two party system and a corporate-dominated society, what else can one expect but a continual see-saw?