Just like generals are said to fight the last war, politicians and campaign operatives have a tendency to wage the previous campaign, making the assumption that the dynamics that prevailed during the most recent election will be replicated in the next.
I have a little history with wave elections. When the 1974 Watergate midterms pummeled the GOP, I was in college in Washington and interning on Capitol Hill.
While very new to politics and admittedly not exactly in a catbird seat, I could tell that something rather extraordinary had happened that year, and it made a distinct impression.
The next wave election was led by Ronald Reagan in 1980; I was a junior analyst at a polling firm then and had a little better vantage point for the election that cost Democrats control of the Senate and almost three dozen House seats.
A smaller wave came two years later when a 10.8 percent unemployment rate and a deep recession cost the GOP 26 House seats—basically two-thirds of its gains in the previous election.
In the Senate, Republicans won a slew of very close races and held onto their majority, but with a national margin of fewer than 100,000 votes.
Reagan’s second midterm election in 1986 wasn’t really a wave, even though Republicans lost eight seats in the Senate.
The GOP did fine at other levels that year and the gains in the Senate were more of a Democratic rebound from 1980. A number of Republicans who had inexplicably won six years earlier entered their reelection campaigns as the walking wounded, and they simply didn’t have the political skills or bases of support to survive on a level playing field.
My experiences in observing wave elections were useful in detecting the development of the 1994 wave led by former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.
Several of us saw that wave developing in the late summer of that year, but no objective observer was able to anticipate the magnitude of it.
Those cumulative experiences also came in useful in 2006 when, in early August, this column began predicting a Democratic takeover of the House and gave no better than a 50-50 chance that the Republicans would retain their majority in the Senate. Similarly, both in 2008 and in 2010, signs grew that the election was not going to be the proverbial all-politics-is-local kind of contest.
Indeed, the die was being cast in 2009 for an upheaval that at least on the U.S. House and state legislative levels was little short of a parliamentary election.
The higher-profile Senate and gubernatorial elections were more situational, driven by candidate and campaign quality and, in the cases of California and Washington state, simply states too tough for the GOP to crack.
The danger for those of us who watch elections is to assume that the exceptions to the rule, the wave elections of 2006, 2008, and 2010, have become the norm.
To be sure, independent voters propelled Democrats in 2006 and 2008 and reversed course and pushed Republicans through in 2010. Independent voters are still impatient and volatile, but these elections were exceptions, not new rules.
The outlook for the House in 2012 is very different from the Senate. In the House, more than two-thirds of the 63 seats that Republicans won in 2010 were in districts that Democrats had taken from the GOP in 2006 or 2008 or they were seats that unusually resilient Democrats held onto that probably should have transitioned to the GOP years earlier.
Former Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor’s extremely conservative Mississippi Gulf Coast district, John Tanner’s western Tennessee district and Chet Edwards’ district in Texas all fit that definition. These seats going Republican was simply an inevitable sorting-out process.
Some fairly exotic and politically problematic Republicans got elected in 2010 and might lose in 2012, but some of those losses might be offset by Republican gains due to redistricting.
In short, it would take something of a wave for Democrats to secure the 25-seat net gain needed to win a House majority.
It’s not impossible, but it is fairly unlikely in the absence of the kind of wave that Democrats enjoyed in 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson pummeled Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz. Short of Republicans nominating former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as their presidential nominee, or shutting down the government, it would be hard to see Democrats having that kind of year.
On the Senate side, Republicans don’t need a wave to pick up a majority. Needing a three-seat gain if they beat President Obama and four if they don’t, the math of Democrats having 23 seats at risk to just 10 for the GOP is tough.
Democrats have seven seats that today look competitive, and five more potentially in play. Republicans have just two of their own seats that look competitive today and just two more that might potentially be in play.
The majority flipping over is not a foregone conclusion, but it is certainly easier to see that happening than Democrats breaking even or gaining seats. This isn’t about waves, tides or even movements, but simply about levels of risk.
In short, the odds are a lot higher for this to be a “normal” election than we have seen since 2004 and not the time to fight the last war.
This article appears in the Feb. 1, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.