Mid -Term Elections
The frequency of elections means voters' voices are heard every two years, offering high levels of representation. Congressional elections use the first-past-the-post voting system (FPTP) in which members of both the House and the Senate are elected in single-member constituencies. These are whole states for the Senate (one Senator is usually elected in a state at any one time) and districts for the House. Congressional elections are also subject to primaries, much like presidential elections. A primary contest will only occur within a party when more than one candidate wants to represent the party for that seat.
The importance of mid-term elections
Mid-term elections are often effectively a referendum on the first two years of a presidential term. The results can have a major impact on presidential power, as the president's party can lose a majority in either chamber, or in both, making it harder to pass legislation. There is a clear pattern: the president's party loses seats in mid-terms, with voters often trying to curtail presidential power. The presidential party has only ever gained seats in the House three times: under President Roosevelt in 1934, President Clinton in 1998 and President Bush in 2002.
The nature of these elections has changed hugely. In mid-term elections, each party runs a national campaign based around a common party platform, usually under the leadership of the House speaker and the House Minority Leader. There has been a tendency for congressional candidates to develop their own individual policy platform, but this has been eroded by an increase in nation-based agendas. This came to the fore in 1994 when Newt Gingrich successfully moved from minority leader to speaker, based on his 'Contract with America', a fiscally conservative package presented to voters, which President Clinton was forced largely to accept. More recently, Nancy Pelosi and the '100 hour agenda' in 2006 and John Boehner and 'The Pledge to America' gave a national mandate to the incoming speaker as their party took a house majority. This mandate allows speakers to become more powerful, often setting the legislative agenda as much as the president. However, this is only true when the president's party loses a mid-term and the opposing party takes control of one or more chambers.