So, Was It A Wave?

So, Was It A Wave?
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
So, Was It A Wave?
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
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There’s been an ongoing discussion about whether the 2018 midterms can be properly considered a “wave” election.  While I think they certainly can be considered a wave, that doesn’t get to the question of whether they ought to be considered as such.

At its core, this debate is pretty silly. Whether 2018 qualifies as a wave doesn’t change the fact that Democrats will control the House in the next Congress, and will do so by a healthy margin at that. Nor does it change the fact that Republicans will have a larger Senate majority than they had in the first two years of the Trump presidency.  The consequence of 2010 was not that we labelled it a wave; it was that Democrats lost the ability to enact policy without Republican help.  

At its core, this is really a debate about narrative setting and bragging rights, which makes it susceptible to bias confirmation.  Moreover, we should have some middle ground that allows for “bad Republican year” in our discussions between “a disappointing election for Democrats” and “a blowout.”  Waves should be fairly uncommon events, not something that occurs every third midterm.

In an attempt to prevent that, I tried to set some guidelines. By this metric, at least, 2018 falls short. The reason is fairly straightforward.  Democrats did quite well in the House; if you take their playing field into account, their win was probably as impressive as the Republican victory in 1994.  But elsewhere, Democratic gains were rather muted. 

Under the metric I set up before the election, the overall index had to shift about 40 points to be considered a wave election rather than simply a good-to-very-good Democratic year.  Right now, votes are still being counted, but it looks as though the index shifted a little more than half that. Overall, the outcome falls in between what we would consider “good years” for Democrats, 1978 and 1970, and is in the ballpark of other “good years” such as 2014, 1950 and 2006. 

Let’s break this down further.  We will start with the House.  This is where the claim to a Democratic wave is absolutely the strongest.  The metric here measures change in the share of the House along with change in the popular vote.

Democratic House pickups will likely number somewhere in the high 30s when the vote counting is done, marking one of the larger pickups in the postwar years.  Democrats will win the popular vote by seven percentage points or so, though it would be about a point smaller if you account for races where Democrats run unopposed.  There was a modest swing in the popular vote as well.  Democratic gains here are on the higher end of “very good year,” or on the lower end of “wave,” depending on how you count. This is made all the more impressive by the fact that Democrats had to overcome some tough maps, although the impact of gerrymandering this cycle is probably grossly overstated.

Democrats had a good night in governorships, picking up seven, while Republicans picked up a governorship held by an independent.

But if Republicans benefited from maps in the House, they were hurt by the map for governorships: The ground that they lost largely came in seats that they held only as a result of the wave election of 2010 and the good GOP year of 2014: Maine, Illinois, New Mexico, and to a lesser extent Michigan and Wisconsin. Republicans saved the governorships in Georgia, Iowa and Florida, despite problematic candidates, and won in states that they lost badly in 2006, like Ohio. The only real surprise came in Kansas, where Kris Kobach – a problematic candidate in his own right – lost by an unexpectedly large margin.  This isn’t to suggest that it was a bad year for Democrats by any stretch.  It is simply to suggest that it wasn’t a wave-like year here.  They had a good map, and got good results.

The Senate, however, is another beast altogether:

Democrats are happy to have knocked off Dean Heller in Nevada by a fairly large margin, and won an open seat narrowly in Arizona.  (Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith’s hold on the Mississippi seat she was appointed to will be determined by a runoff later this month.) But they lost four incumbents, for a net loss of two seats.  The table above shows absolute movement, so it is actually worse for Democrats than it appears; it marks the first time the president’s party has knocked off four incumbents since 1934, and is the second-best overall showing for a president’s party since that year.  Democratic incumbents who won either underperformed or ran roughly even with their 2012 showings in West Virginia, Montana, Michigan and Ohio, despite facing lower-quality challengers in the latter three races.

Yes, Democrats had a horrible map to defend – although they won all the seats they were defending in 2012 and mostly won them in 2006.  One of the marks of true wave elections, though, is that favorable maps break down, much like the House map broke down for Republicans this cycle.  This tendency is why, for much of the year, people took seriously the possibility that Democrats could win the Senate.

After all, Republicans had an unfavorable Senate map in 2010 and were expected to lose seats early on (as did Democrats in 2006), but they managed to capitalize on a bad situation by winning in places like Illinois and Wisconsin in 2010 (as did Democrats in Montana and Virginia in 2006), while running up huge margins in vulnerable seats like Ohio and New Hampshire that same year (or in Minnesota and New Jersey for Democrats in 2006).  That’s just not what the results look like this year. 

Finally, state legislative elections were a tepid outcome for Democrats as well.  This metric averages the share of state houses and senates controlled by a party, as well as its share of seats in those bodies.

Once again, this isn’t a bad showing. But it is closest in magnitude to 1962 and 1950, and doesn’t come close the legislative bloodbaths that characterized years like 1974, 2010, 1966 and 1958.

If there had been disappointing showings in one category it wouldn’t be the end of the world for Democrats; they had tepid showings in governorships in wave years like 1974 and 1958.  But by most metrics, this election was near the middle of the pack or worse. 

The one outlier for Democrats is the House, and it is worth asking why they shone here while falling short elsewhere. In fact, I think this disparity is the central question of this cycle. The best explanation I have come up with is that money does matter at the margins, and in this cycle the Democrats’ enormous fundraising advantage – as well as the late dose of money from Michael Bloomberg in key races – really did make a difference in close races.  Of course, we have no way of knowing for sure.  But overall, outside of the House, this election simply doesn’t look much like previous wave elections.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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