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The Most Reliable Guide To Campaign 2014? History

Then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas was all smiles after Republicans took over the Senate in an eight-seat rout in 1994.
John Duricka
Then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas was all smiles after Republicans took over the Senate in an eight-seat rout in 1994.

Still wondering where to put your money on the Senate races tonight?

There's been a lot of contradictory data flying around in the final hours and days of Campaign 2014, so don't feel alone. You can find polls in swing states that say the races are too close to call, and you can find others that show the Republican candidate opening a lead. You can, of course, listen to the party advocates and pundits, but while highly expert they are always pushing a given point of view.

So if you want a reliable guide to the outcomes on the Big Board this year, you will be best served by looking to history. A few salient facts from the recent and not-so-recent past are your best guide.

  • The first historical rule is this: President Obama is midway through his second elected term, which means that if his party controls the Senate (as Obama's does), it will likely lose its majority status in this midterm. This has been true for every president we have re-elected since World War II, regardless of party.
  • The last four presidents who served two full terms — George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower — all had to deal with a Senate controlled by the opposition party in their last two years in office. Reagan, though popular in the fall of 1986 and actively campaigning for GOP incumbents, still lost eight seats and Senate control to the Democrats that November.
  • The second historical rule is like unto the first. This is the sixth year the president's party has been in power, which means it stands to suffer substantial losses in the Senate whether it is the majority party or not. This has been true for both chief executives from both parties, and it applied even to the legendary Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose Democrats suffered terrible losses in both House and Senate in 1938.
  • Overall, the average Senate loss in a midterm for the president's party is four seats over the last 80 years. In sixth-year midterms, it is substantially higher. This includes the sixth year of the JFK-LBJ presidency (1966) and the sixth year of the Nixon-Ford regime (1974).
  • The one exception to the six-year rule? Bill Clinton in 1998, who had already lost control of the Senate in an eight-seat rout in 1994. Clinton in the fall of 1998 was embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal and about to be impeached by the House. But the economy was going great guns and the country did not share the House GOP's enthusiasm for impeachment. Clinton was in fact above 60 percent in the Gallup Poll, far more popular than he was for his first midterm.
  • In the last five elections that saw control of the Senate shift from one party to the other, the new majority party picked up an average of roughly seven seats, net. If you eliminate the high end (12 seats in 1980) and the low end (two seats in 2002) of this scale, you still get an average of about seven seats net. This year, a seven-seat net gain would be just enough to give the GOP control (plus one seat for insurance).
  • In most election years, the Senate race outcomes do not divide equally between the parties. Typically, the party that gains seats wins all or nearly all the close races, protecting its own while capturing seats from the other side. In 2010, Republicans triumphed around the country without losing any of their incumbents. In 2006 and 2008, Democrats protected all their incumbents without a loss.
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    Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for