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National Politics|By Amy Walter, March 5, 2013

It's easy to mock Republicans these days. They are sitting on record low approval ratings. The party is woefully behind the demographic curve on everything from gay rights to immigration and are still trapped in the 20th Century when it comes to campaign technology. A recent headline on a Pew Research poll sums up the GOP's troubles thusly: "GOP Seen as Principled, But Out of Touch and Too Extreme."

That said, Democrats should be careful about getting too comfortable about their prospects in 2014 and beyond.

History

It is always better to control the White House than not. That is, unless you are a member of the president's party in the midterm election following his re-election. Since 1958, the party of a re-elected president has lost an average of 29 House seats and 6 Senate seats in that midterm election which goes by the nickname, the "Six Year Itch." Only once in those six midterm elections has the party holding the White House *gained* seats (1998).

Post-World War II Midterm Elections Following Presidential Reelection

The "Six Year Itch"

Year President Party In-Party Seat Change: House In-Party Seat Change: Senate
1958 Eisenhower Republican -48 -12
1966 Kennedy/Johnson Democrat -48 -4
1974 Nixon/Ford Republican -48 -4
1986 Reagan Republican -5 -8
1998 Clinton Democrat +5 0
2006 G. W. Bush Republican -30 -6
AVERAGE

-29 -6
Source: Vital Statistics on Congress, 2008

Now put on top of the traditional six year itch history, a post-redistricting landscape that has insulated all but a handful of House incumbents, and a Senate map where Democrats are defending lots of red states that went to Romney by impressive margins.

The fact that Obama's coattails were so short in 2012 does mean there are fewer seats for House Democrats to lose in 2014. That said, Democrats nationally won 1.4 million more votes than Republicans and picked up a mere 8 seats. It's hard to see how a mid-term election, with traditionally lower turn-out among Democratic leaning voters, is going to be able to produce a 17-seat gain for the Democrats.

Plus, Obama's personal likability has been his strongest attribute. That is not something that you can convey to your party - even in good years.

Then there's 2016. Before anyone starts to get all giddy about a Hillary-Jeb match-up or tries to map out the 2015 GOP debate schedule, look at this:

Post-World War II Presidential Elections Following Second Presidential Term

In-party White House wins following 2nd presidential term: 1, losses: 5

Year President Party In-Party Election Result
1960 Eisenhower Republican Lost White House
1968 Kennedy/Johnson Democrat Lost White House
1976 Nixon/Ford Republican Lost White House
1988 Reagan Republican Won White House
2000 Clinton Democrat Lost White House (Lost Electoral Vote, Won Pop. Vote)
2008 G. W. Bush Republican Lost White House
Source: Vital Statistics on Congress, 2008

In the last 48 years, six presidents (or their party) have won re-election to a second term. Only once - 1988 - has that party gone on to win a third White House term. Let me repeat that - only once in that last 48 years has a party won three consecutive White House elections.

Yes, rules are made to be broken. And, we have no idea what kind of world we'll be living in come 2016. That said, there is something hard wired in the American electorate about giving the side that's been out of the cold for the last eight years their shot at the White House. Scandals in a second-term also help foster a desire for a changing of the guard.

The Economy

Obama is personally and politically more popular than the GOP. But, perceptions of his handling of the economy remain middling to poor. The most recent Pollster.com average shows Obama with 43 percent approval to 49 percent disapproval. Moreover, the average middle class American has yet to see much benefit from the economy's still anemic recovery.

As the Washington Post's Jim Tankersley outlined in a piece titled "Is Slow Growth America's New Normal?: "The U.S. economy grew by 2.2 percent last year, 1.8 percent the year before, and 2.4 percent in 2010. That was not enough growth to bring down unemployment speedily, which is why — three and a half years after the recession officially ended — 12 million Americans are still looking for work."

Moreover, the disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street seems more significant than ever. The Dow breaking all kinds of records is cold-comfort to Americans who are either out of work, or have little to no savings to be able to invest in the surging stock market.

Whatever happens between now and 2016 - good or bad - the Democratic nominee will own the "Obama economy." So while issues like gay marriage or border fences or campaign technology may define 2013, the state of the economy will decide 2016.

The Farm Team

Since 2010, the focus has been on Republican in-fighting and division. Nothing keeps a party together like winning and nothing tears a party apart like losing. But, come 2015, expect to see divisions within the Democratic party start to surface. Republicans were frustrated by a primary process - and debate schedule - that they believe undermined control of their message. Democrats are in for the same rude awakening four years from now.

Democrats have Hillary Clinton, currently the most popular politician in the country. But, the GOP has a deeper bench, especially of non-DC players.

Maybe things get better in DC between now and 2016. Maybe they don't. But, given the level of dysfunction we're seeing in Washington today, it is really hard to see how anyone currently associated with this place will be able to make the case to the American public that their Washington experience is an asset.

GOP Governors Bobby Jindal (LA), Susanna Martinez (NM), Brian Sandoval (NV) and Scott Walker (WI), represent a new, and diverse generation of GOP executives. Democrats, meanwhile, have just one female Governor (Maggie Hassan of NH) and one (retiring) African-American Governor ( Deval Patrick of MA). There are no Democratic Governors who are Latino or Asian-American .

If Democrats need to focus on anything in 2014, it's building the ranks of diversity at the state executive level.

The point of this column is not to pick on the Democrats. But, it is a warning that picking on Republicans current troubles misses the longer-term story. To be sure, it is far to early to say which party will be better equipped for 2014 or 2016. Heck, we still have no idea what the impact of the recent sequester will be on the nation's finances and psyche. Even so, the party holding the White House for two-terms has trouble defining itself once the standard bearer for the party is longer on the ballot. Add to that the proliferation of outside groups who have the money to push their narrow agenda into the public debate, and you have the potential for even more division among Democrats as to who should lead the party - and what it should stand for.