Speaker: Jerry Falwell Jr.
Statement: “This midterm, the president did better than the average president does in his first midterms.”
Date: Jan. 1, 2019
Source: Newspaper Q&A
Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, was thumbs-up on President Donald Trump during a question-and-answer interview published in the Washington Post on News Year’s Day, saying, “I can’t imagine him doing anything that’s not good for the country.”
The interview ran two days before the 116th Congress was sworn in, seating the first Democratic majority in the House of Representatives in eight years - a change caused by last year’s midterm elections when Democrats gained 40 seats in the chamber. Many pundits and politicians say the results reflect voter dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump, a Republican.
Falwell, however, says Trump weathered the election very well. “This midterm, the president did better than the average president does in his first midterms,” the evangelical leader said. “So I think the message is that the American people are happy with the direction the country is headed and happy with the economy, happy with our newfound respect in the world. It’s a better result than you normally see in the first midterms.”
We wondered if Falwell is right that Trump got above average results from his first midterm elections. So we took an empirical look. We’ll let you decide what, if any, message voters sent.
Although Republicans lost 40 seats in the House last November, they won two new seats in the Senate. Overall, that comes to a 38-seat Republican loss in Congress.
Falwell didn’t say how many presidents he was counting in his statement. Records show that 24 of the 28 presidents since 1862 saw their party’s congressional seats drop during their first midterms. So Trump has company. For all of those elections, the average loss was about 30 seats - better than the 38-seat drop under Trump.
Ranking the 28 presidents from best results to worst, Trump came in at 18. He did not, as Falwell claimed, “do better than the average president.”
Presidents in office after World War II ended in 1945 saw similar results. Of those 13 presidents, 12 experienced losses during their first midterm (the exception being George W. Bush in 2002, who gained nine seats). The average loss was 31 seats.
Ranking the presidents from best results to worst, Trump is No. 8. That, again, contradicts Falwell’s statement.
How does Falwell defend his claim? We received a written statement from Falwell walking his remarks back, saying they merely “reflect” that Trump fared better than the last two Democratic presidents in their first midterms. Democrats lost 62 seats under Bill Clinton in 1994, and dropped 69 under Barack Obama in 2010.
Why didn’t he just say that in the Q&A? Falwell’s spokesman, Scott Lamb, said the midterm discussion was just a quick part of an interview that focused on explaining Trump’s strong support from evangelicals.
For History Buffs
If you like history, here is some trivia we learned about presidential performance in their first midterms from 1862 to now:
*In addition to George W. Bush in 2002, the four presidents who gained seats are Abraham Lincoln in 1862, Theodore Roosevelt in 1902, and Franklin Roosevelt in 1934. Lincoln’s Republicans gained 5 seats, but that was Southern states had seceded, Franklin Roosevelt had the best results in 1934, when Democrats gained 19 seats.
The president with the worst outcome was Benjamin Harrison, whose Republicans lost 85 seats in the 1890 midterm, followed by Warren Harding, whose Republicans dropped 83 seats in 1922. Obama had the third worst result; Clinton experienced the sixth worst.
Falwell said, “This midterm, the president did better than the average president does in his first midterms.” The claim does not stand up.
Republicans lost 38 congressional seats in the 2018 elections and control of the House of Representatives. Of the 28 presidents who have served since 1862, that’s the 18th highest losses by their party during their first midterms. The average loss was about 30 seats. If we just consider just the 13 post-World War II presidents, Trump saw the eighth highest losses. Those presidents experienced an average loss of 31 seats in their first midterm.
Falwell, asked to prove his statement, merely points out that Trump outperformed Democrats Clinton and Obama during their first midterms. That’s correct, but it’s not what he said.
Statistics consistently show that Trump performed slightly worse than the average president during his first midterm. We rate Falwell’s statement False.
The Washington Post, “Jerry Falwell Jr. can’t imagine can’t imagine Trump ‘doing anything that’s not good for the country’,” Jan. 1, 2019.
Interview with Scott Lamb, vice president of special literary projects at Liberty University, Jan. 3, 2019.
Gallup, “Midterm Seat Loss averages 37 for Unpopular Presidents,” Sept. 12, 2019.
FactCheck.org, “Trump spins midterm election results,” Nov. 19. 2018.
FiveThirtyEight, “How crazy is it that the Senate and the House might move in opposite directions this year?” Oct. 8, 2018.
Ballotpedia, “Election results, 2018,” accessed Jan. 2, 2019.
United States Senate, “Party division,” accessed Jan. 2, 2019.
United State House of Representatives, “Party division,” Accessed Jan. 2, 2019.