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From my understanding of US politics, Congress / the legislative branch has more power than the President / the executive branch. Doesn't this mean that the midterm elections are far more important than the presidential elections?

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    "has more power" - not anymore. That was the case 200+ years ago, but over the years legislative effective power was (largely voluntarily) ceded to executive. – user4012 Oct 15 '18 at 0:51
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    If you want your question deleted you can flag it and explain why it needs to be deleted. I've flagged for Mod attention. – James K Sep 28 at 19:05
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I think that this answer, while correct, somewhat hides the federal portion of the answer.

Presidential elections are legislative elections

Both midterm and presidential elections include

  • The entire House of Representatives up for election.
  • One third of the Senate up for election. (Due to rounding, this is thirty-three Senators in two out of three election years and thirty-four in the third. There is no correlation between that rounding and presidential or midterm elections. Sometimes there are special elections, where a Senator is replaced early. There is no requirement that such elections be held during a regular federal election much less a preference for midterm over presidential elections.)

Presidential elections also include

  • The presidency up for election.

So just from that standpoint, presidential elections have strictly more federal impact than midterms.

Presidents are quite powerful

Presidents can

  • Veto bills, requiring a two thirds vote to override. That makes a president worth about a sixth of each chamber of Congress in terms of impact on passing legislation.
  • Spend money. Congress only authorizes expenditures. Only the executive branch (run by the president) spends money beyond the amounts that Congress spends for its own functions.
  • Appoint cabinet secretaries (what are often called ministers in parliamentary governments). The Senate can review these appointments, but only the president may propose them.
  • Appoint other executive branch officials. The Senate can review some but not all of these appointments, but again only the president may propose them.
  • Fire executive branch officials. Congress can only impeach them, which requires a majority vote in the House and a two thirds vote in the Senate.
  • Appoint judges. Again, the Senate can review these, but only the president may propose them. Not executive branch officials and may not be fired.
  • Appoints the Federal Reserve bank's Board of Governors. Again, the Senate reviews presidential appointments but can't make them.
  • Commands the military. Only Congress can declare war, but it is the president who wages it.
  • Propose treaties. The Senate can only ratify treaties proposed by the president.
  • Writes regulations. In practice, Congress delegates the regulatory power to executive branch agencies. Due to what is called Chevron deference, the judicial branch has traditionally deferred to the interpretation that the executive branch has made of legislative laws.

This should not be viewed as an exhaustive list of presidential powers. For example, the president has traditionally chosen United States flag designs. I didn't mention that because I don't find that particularly powerful. There may be other powers that are either insufficiently powerful to mention or which I simply forgot.

Presidents are term limited

At least every other presidential election is an open election. A president may only run for two terms. After that, the president may not stand for election again. Congressional members have no term limits. There are currently members who have served more than forty years in both chambers. And previous members have passed fifty.

Partly for this reason and partly because the country as a whole is less lopsided than individual parts of it, the presidency is more competitive. More competitive means more likely to make a difference.

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From my understanding of US politics, Congress / the legislative branch has more power than the President / the executive branch. Doesn't this mean that the midterm elections are far more important than the presidential elections?

Short Answer

No. You really don't understand U.S. politics very well.

Long Answer

Presidential elections are also legislative elections

In Presidential election years, there are roughly the same number of legislative elections as there are in mid-term elections. Typically, there is an election for the U.S. House of Representatives and every seat of the lower house of every state legislature and approximately one-third of the members of the U.S. Senate and about half of the members of each state senate (except Nebraska, which is unicameral), every two years. (The schedule for state Governors and other state executive branch officials and local government officials varies considerably from state to state.)

A Presidential election has everything (on average) that a mid-term election does PLUS a Presidential election. This in and of itself, means that Presidential elections are always going to be more important than midterm elections.

The U.S. government has a very strong President

Your understanding the the relative strength of the Presidency and the Congress isn't accurate. If anything, the President is a bit more powerful than the Congress, collectively, in the U.S. system of government. The U.S. has one of the strongest Presidents of any democratic government that has such a post.

The U.S. President can veto Congressional legislation in a manner that is very rarely overturned, nominates executive and judicial brach officials whose nominations are approved ca. 95%+ of the time even when the opposition party controls of the U.S. Senate, the President can promulgate influential regulations and set federal government policies on myriad matters, and the President has almost complete control over how military affairs are managed and very broad discretion over foreign affairs. No treaty can be enacted without Presidential support while the President can reach executive agreements with other governments of considerable force. Congress rarely accepts all of a President's proposals or budget ideas (even when Congress is controlled by the same party) but both are nonetheless influential in policy making. The President has very little accountability to Congress. And, of course, the President has informal power as a center of media attention (called the "bully pulpit") and as leader of his political party.

Some of the "defects" of the U.S. Constitution involve the Framers erroneous belief that the executive branch would be weaker relative to Congress than it is in practice.

Presidential races are winner take all

All of the powers of the President are unified in a single elected official, while all powers of Congress are collective - no one legislative election determines its behavior.

Also, historically, Congressional races have not just been national fights for partisan control as they are in many countries with parliamentary government, because party discipline in Congress has historically been weak (partisanship is at a record high right now so this is less true now than it has been historically).

For example, in the highly controversial and partisan recent vote to confirm President Trump's nominee Judge Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, both the U.S. Senate Republicans and the U.S. Senate Democrats have a defecting member.

The weakness of party discipline in the U.S. Congress is in part a function of the strong Presidency. Because the executive branch functions of government can continue without consistent support from a majority party in Congress that could be brought down with one loss of confidence vote in a parliamentary system, it isn't as critical institutionally for Congress to have strong party discipline.

Presidential races are usually competitive, legislative races often aren't

While most legislative elections aren't close (and hence aren't interesting) because most legislative districts and states have a clear partisan leaning, most Presidential elections are reasonably competitive or at least have the potential to be in many states, which draws interest nationally even in states that aren't competitive.

The President is more visible and easy for voters to monitor

Is the reason psychological (having a new perceived "face" of the nation vs many new people in a vast organization)?

This psychological factor also plays a part, but not nearly as dominant a part as the question would suggest.

This is also a function of how the media interacts with the public. The voting public is very aware of the performance of the President whose activities are covered on a daily basis in the news and are relatively easy to assign blame to (indeed, the public tends to assign blame for the state of the nation to the President whether or not the President has had much of an impact on that or not).

But, discerning the effect on individual members of Congress or state legislators on particular outcomes is much more difficult to monitor. Only local media outlets (as opposed to national ones) cover this at all, in most cases, and even then, allocating responsibility is difficult. A legislator in a legislative minority party has little real personal impact on much of anything for good or ill, most of the time. Many members of the general public don't even know who their members of Congress are, but almost everyone knows who the President of the United States is.

Conclusion

In short, every Presidential election is a competitive winner take all event that also includes a full slate of legislative elections, while midterm elections don't have this character.

So, the premise of the question that the President or Presidential election years are not as important as midterm elections is mostly false.

  • Nice, thorough answer. The only thing I’d suggest is adding the word “currently” to the statement that the President is more powerful. It is feasible for Congress to pass laws restricting his power and/or removing departments from the Executive branch. Not very likely in the short-to-mid term, but feasible. – Bobson Oct 16 '18 at 5:34
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    @Bobson Not really. The veto power and the power to nominate and the power to be commander in chief, all of which are constitutionally enshrined, alone only with the consolidation of power in one person, make the Presidency powerful, and Congress can't take away the bully pulpit either. – ohwilleke Oct 16 '18 at 16:29
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Supply and demand. There is one executive in the executive branch. The executive branch is theoretically equal in power to the legislative branch. There are hundreds of legislators in the legislative branch. Therefore the presidential election will always be bigger than legislative elections, midterms or otherwise.

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