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 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 in his first midterm election. So we took an empirical look.
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. The average loss in all those elections was 30 seats - better than the 38-seat drop under Trump.
Ranking the 28 presidents from best results to worst, Trump came in 18th. 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 those 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 saying his remarks were intended to "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 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 a small part of the interview and Falwell was focused on core questions he was being asked about why evangelicals back Trump.
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 drop was 30 seats. If we just consider the 13 post-World War II presidents, Trump saw the eighth highest losses. Those presidents experienced an average drop of 31 seats in their first midterm.
Falwell, asked to prove his statement, substitutes a different claim: that Trump outperformed Democrats Clinton and Obama during their first midterms.
Statistics consistently show Trump performed slightly worse than the average president during his first midterm. We rate Falwell’s statement False.