Common to both political folk wisdom and political science is the idea that the mid-term congressional election is a referendum on the performance of the current administration. The more popular a president and the more successful his policies, the better his party does at the midterm. The president's party almost invariably loses some congressional seats in off-year elections (since the Civil War the president's party has added House seats only once—in 1934—though it occasionally picks up Senate seats). But the extent of its losses varies widely (from one to 56 House seats in postwar midterms), depending, so the theory goes, on how the electorate rates the administration's performance.
The 1982 congressional elections will, in this view, be a referendum on President Reagan's administration and in particular on his economic policies, which have been the focus of political attention since inauguration day. If this is true, then economic conditions prevalent through the spring of 1982 (a potentially devastating combination of deep recession, high unemployment, and high interest rates) and Reagan's shaky support in the polls (less than 50 percent approving his performance in all Gallup surveys during the first four months of 1982), portend a Republican disaster of major proportions in the fall.
Remarkably, almost no one is seriously predicting anything of the kind. And it may indeed be a mistake to bet on enormous Republican losses—partly, we will argue, because they are not widely anticipated.