Commentary Magazine


The Myth of Political Wave Elections

In today’s Politico Magazine, crack “Crystal Ball” poly sci professor Larry Sabato breaks down the chances that this year’s midterm elections will be a Republican wave that will allow them to take the Senate away from the Democrats. Sabato’s analysis of each of the dozen or so Senate races that will decide this question is on target. But I have a problem with the way he and just about everyone else in the political punditry business tends to speak about congressional elections from a purely national frame of reference. Sabato accurately discusses the various local quirks to each of these state races. But his chart summarizing these contests classifies the possible outcomes in terms of what kind of wave will develop in November.

The various results run the gamut from the “calm seas” that Democrats hope for (in which no seats change hands), “ripples,” “small breakers,” and “sea wall holds” (in which the GOP gains seats but not enough to form a Senate majority), to outcomes that Republicans would like such as “sea wall breached,” “gale force white caps,” “tropical storm wave,” “tidal wave,” and “full tsunami” (in which they take back the Senate). It’s all good fun to play this game and is probably as good a way as any to make sense of an election that is, in fact, more than a dozen different elections. But that’s the problem with these reductive analyses. As much as it makes it easier to understand midterm elections to think of the verdict of the voters of all these states as being part of one comprehensive and easily understood narrative of Democratic or Republican victory, the truth is always going to be a lot murkier than that.

Whether the Republicans get their hoped for “tsunami” or the Democrats sail happily along in “calm seas,” what will happen this November will actually be the product of a host of differing and often contradictory narratives that can only be cobbled together into one story after the fact. While one party or the other may emerge triumphant this year, and perhaps spectacularly so, the notion that this will be the product of a genuine national wave is a myth.

The assumption in all wave analysis projections is that the voters in the various states where competitive Senate seats are being contested are going to tell us something about the way national issues are influencing them. Thus, pundits read the polls and the tea leaves to ponder the impact of the unpopularity of ObamaCare, the sluggish economy, as well as whether Democratic themes about the faux “war on women” and misleading rhetoric about “income inequality” are going to be decisive factors. We also assume that the president’s own declining poll numbers and the public’s answer to the generic poll question about the direction of the country will be high or low enough to determine how rough the seas will be for members of his party.

It would be foolish to assume that any or all of these national factors are not going to influence the number of Democrats and Republicans in the Senate next year. It would be equally wrongheaded to think that the relative enthusiasm of the bases of the two parties—a factor that is determined largely by national rather than local concerns—will not help determine the outcome. But when discussing the most competitive Senate races, the more one looks at them individually, the easier it is to see that they each one is almost certainly going to be decided by factors that have little to do with national trends and everything to do with the particular circumstances and candidates in the individual state.

Take Arkansas, for instance. It is a deep-red state where Obama, ObamaCare, and the Democrats’ whole litany of issues are unpopular. The Republicans also have an able and popular Senate candidate in Rep. Tom Cotton, who has the added distinction of being a war veteran. But nonetheless Senator Mark Pryor is still ahead in the polls. Though Sabato wisely discounts the most recent poll that showed Pryor with a double-digit edge, it’s still obvious that the incumbent’s ability to play to the center is keeping him in the hunt.

In Louisiana, Mary Landrieu should also be on life support but is staying in the race through traditional patronage tactics and voter familiarity with her family brand (a factor that also helps Pryor).

In Alaska, Mark Begich won in 2008 on a fluke that was the product of an unjust federal prosecution of Senator Ted Stevens. But he’s got an even chance in that profoundly conservative state because of the local quirks of politics there in which independent-minded voters often overcome national trends.

The same is true of a number of other states where the relative strengths of the individual candidates will tell us more about who will win than poll numbers about ObamaCare or the president.

In the end, all these local factors may break one way or the other and we’ll call it a wave election. But don’t be deceived. It’s a rare midterm that is truly decided by national factors. Even those midterms that produced a one-sided outcome, such as the GOP’s 2010 Tea Party wave, the Democrat’s 2006 anti-Iraq war wave, or the 1994 Newt Gingrich Republican revolution wave, were bolstered by a flock of one-off outcomes that were less about the big issues we all focused on and more about local scandals or problems. Like all political science terminology, which seeks to create systems and patterns that can be applied across the board, these waves are all individual events that cannot be repeated. As the late Tip O’Neill famously said, “all politics is local.” The quicker we grasp that fact, the better our understanding of the midterms will be.

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