With a month to go before Election Day 1980, President Carter held a significant advantage over Ronald Reagan. Gallup surveys showed Carter leading Reagan by an 8-point margin. But thanks to an outstanding debate performance and a lousy economy, Reagan won 44 states and 489 electoral votes. Along the way, he helped a Senate Republican minority become a majority, as 12 new GOP senators swept into office.
Few believe that a similar wave will develop this year. The electorate is narrowly divided; neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney has opened any sort of significant polling lead; and a state-by-state analysis of House and Senate races suggests that while many incumbents are vulnerable, the net outcome is unlikely to overwhelmingly benefit one side or the other.
But the fact remains that a surprisingly large number of Senate races across the country are so close that the last eight weeks before Election Day presents opportunities for both sides. The conditions for a wave election like those in 2006, 2008, and 2010 don't exist yet, but the potential for a late-breaking tide isn't completely out of the question.
"I think what this year reminds me of in some ways is 1980--although I'm not predicting a blowout like we ended up having in '80--in which people really don't think the guy's done a very good job, and the Democrats are betting on our candidate being inadequate," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in an interview. "That race was remarkably close until 10 days out, as flawed as Carter was. He wasn't nearly as skilled a politician as Obama. Rotten record and all the rest, it still didn't break until the end."
In recent wave elections, close Senate races have overwhelmingly broken toward one party. In 2006, Democrats won every competitive Senate contest except Tennessee, where Republican Bob Corker edged Democrat Harold Ford by 2 points. In 2008, Democrats again came close to running the table; only McConnell, who won reelection by 6 points, staved off a competitive challenge. But for unelectable nominees in Nevada, Delaware, and Colorado, Republicans ran the table when their wave crested in 2010.
At the moment, public and internal party polling shows races in 11 states as even or with one side having only a slight advantage. The two parties quibble over which states are truly competitive, but Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, and Virginia are on at least one side's list of nail-biters. Add in Maine, where Republicans are making a play to boost nominee Charlie Summers, and an even dozen seats are up for grabs with less than two months to go.
"I can't think of a cycle in the last 10 years where we have had more races in single digits," Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told reporters at a briefing last week.
Underscoring the trouble Democrats have faced all cycle, just four of those 12 seats are currently held by Republicans. If a wave breaks in either direction, Democrats face more downside risk than Republicans, who need to net just four seats to take control of the upper chamber.
Lucky breaks and good fortune as a result of long preparation have led to tweaks in both sides' strategies. Republicans have all but pulled out of Missouri, where Rep. Todd Akin's campaign imploded after disastrous comments about "legitimate rape." Democrats are advertising in Connecticut, where a closer-than-expected contest has them on defense, while Republicans are taking a gamble on Summers in Maine with a $500,000 ad buy. Promising recruits have bolstered Democratic chances in Arizona, Indiana, and North Dakota, three states in which the party might not have expected to be competitive this year.
It remains unlikely that a wave will build over the next eight weeks. Strategists still believe both sides have about an even shot to win control of the Senate. But some of the constituent factors that combine to make a wave--a disappointed electorate, a troubled economy, and a number of evenly divided Senate races--exist, in whole or in part.
If one side sweeps to unexpected victories in November, it will seem like Reagan's deja vu all over again.