By Chris Adams

Just two years after a president gets elected often comes the backlash, leading to what is known as a “wave” election.

But what does that actually mean – and why do they happen?

James Thurber, a distinguished professor in the Department of Government at American University, led National Press Foundation Paul Miller fellows through a description of those first-term midterm elections that can lead to crushing losses for the president’s party.

He was speaking a month before the 2018 midterms, and therefore during a time President Donald Trump and Republicans were bracing for a tough election. Trump’s approval rating at the time was under 50 percent, and previous presidents facing the same numbers had suffered brutal midterm losses, he said.

“By all indicators, they’re going to lose a lot of seats,” Thurber said.

Thurber went through some of the other brutal midterms:

•   2010, when President Barack Obama had a 45 percent approval and was still coming off a painful recession, an unpopular financial sector bailout and the rocky rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Turnout for Democrats was poor, and they lost 63 seats in the House and six in the Senate.

•   1994, when President Bill Clinton had 48 percent approval, and Democrats lost 52 seats in the House and eight in the Senate. It was the first time since Reconstruction that Republicans had won a majority of Southern congressional seats.

•   1974, when President Gerald Ford had 54 percent approval but whose party was stained by the Watergate scandal. Republicans lost 48 House seats and five in the Senate; the Democratic winners became known as “Watergate babies.”

There were other bad first-term midterms – Lyndon Johnson in 1966, Harry Truman in 1946 – and some moderately bad ones. Thurber talked about what drove those elections, as well as how changing turnout dynamics played such an important role in the outcomes.