What will shape the net outcome of the November congressional elections? Will it be the promises of business recovery to take place before the elections, promises that the President and his spokesmen have been repeating during the past 12 months? Will it be the failure of these promises to materialize?
Or will the Democrats, in line with their experience over the past 100 years of midterm elections, again manage to gain additional congressional seats, thus increasing their present margin?
President Reagan's report to Congress last February promised that the recession would be over by the end of 1982. In May of this year President Reagan said that despite continued unemployment there are signs that ''we have been in the trough, we have been at the bottom.'' Three weeks later (June 3) he said, ''We believe economy recovery is imminent.''
Instead, unemployment has reached a post-war high so that on election day unemployment will amount to about 10 percent and probably contribute to Republican congressional losses.
Republican losses in this election might be held down by the reported more ample Republican financial campaign resources, but it is not readily possible to estimate the total amount to be spent by each party or the effect on election results. As a possible offset to greater Republican spending in many congressional districts, the public (according to a Harris survey) is highly critical of President Reagan's economic programs. Over 60 per-cent think that Reagan's economic programs favor the rich and big business, that the elderly, the poor, and the handicapped will be especially hard hit, and that more people will be losing their homes and farms; about half think more people will be going hungry and unemployment will not be reduced below the present level.
There are two other election features that need to be taken into account. One has to do with the falling off of voter participation in midterm years. The other is the long-persistent record of losses of congressional seats by the party of the president, whether Republican or Democrat, accompanying the falling off of voter support in midterm years. Apparently many who vote in presidential elections do not do so in midterm years.
For example, in Theodore Roosevelt's first term, Republicans lost 28 congressional seats and in his second term 57 seats. After Harding's election in 1920 Republicans lost 75 seats. In Hoover's first term Republicans lost 10 seats and in his second term 49. Following Eisenhower's elections, Republicans lost 18 seats in 1954 and 48 in 1958. Nixon witnessed the loss of 48 seats in 1974.
Why does the president's party, Republican or Democrat, so consistently lose support in congressional elections? The record of losses is so historically consistent that I am inclined to think that many voters who think they have done their duty in voting for president do not feel similarly obligated to take part in congressional elections. How else can we explain the fact that in every midterm election the president's congressional support shrinks and shrinks more in midterm years of heavy unemployment?
In estimating how many congressional seats the Democrats could gain in this election, two additional questions need to be asked. What effect in holding down Democratic congressional gains may be expected from apparently greater Republican financial campaign resources? And, if President Reagan takes an active part in the election campaign, will he succeed in minimizing Republican congressional losses?
To these, there are no firm answers.