OFF TO THE RACES

Surf’s Up For a Wave Election

Political analysts are beginning to think the undertow could sweep away Republicans and give Democrats control of the House.

Vice President Dick Cheney and President Bush stand in the Rose Garden of the White House on Nov. 9, 2006.
AP Photo/Ron Edmonds, files
May 8, 2017, 8 p.m.

House Re­pub­lic­ans were caught on the horns of a di­lemma. If they didn’t pass a bill that ef­fect­ively re­pealed and re­placed Obama­care, they would either look in­ef­fec­tu­al or in de­fi­ance of their con­ser­vat­ive base. But to pass a bill with no Demo­crat­ic sup­port in a nar­rowly di­vided House, they would need sup­port of the vast ma­jor­ity of the con­ser­vat­ive Free­dom Caucus, which would mean a bill that would nev­er sur­vive in the Sen­ate, where mem­bers have sub­stan­tially more di­verse con­stitu­en­cies.

Bey­ond those factors, they faced a po­ten­tial back­lash from Amer­ic­ans who either would be ad­versely af­fected by the bill or fear that they would. So the Re­pub­lic­ans were forced to pick their pois­on: Either look in­com­pet­ent or thumb their nose at their base. They chose to side with their base. Many mod­er­ate and swing-dis­trict Re­pub­lic­ans hope that the Sen­ate will sub­stan­tially tone down the le­gis­la­tion and that the Free­dom Caucus will feel pres­sured to go along with a much more meas­ured bill after a joint Sen­ate-House con­fer­ence com­mit­tee re­con­ciles the two ver­sions.

So now what? Since In­aug­ur­a­tion Day, Pres­id­ent Trump has had the low­est job-ap­prov­al rat­ings of any newly elec­ted pres­id­ent since the first “sci­en­tific­ally based” poll by George Gal­lup in 1936. More than any­thing else, midterm elec­tions are ref­er­enda on the in­cum­bent pres­id­ent. Ob­vi­ously no one knows what is go­ing to hap­pen in next year’s midterm elec­tions, but ana­lysts who have watched con­gres­sion­al elec­tions for a long time are see­ing signs that 2018 could be a wave elec­tion that flips con­trol of the House to Demo­crats.

The late Demo­crat­ic Speak­er Tip O’Neill was fam­ous for hav­ing said, “all polit­ics is loc­al.” I would add an im­port­ant caveat: “All polit­ics is loc­al, ex­cept when it’s not.” Roughly once a dec­ade we see a tid­al wave elec­tion, al­most al­ways at midterm, in which an in­vis­ible hand seems to boost can­did­ates of one party and drag down can­did­ates of the oth­er. Can­did­ates who nor­mally win big end up win­ning by smal­ler mar­gins. Law­makers who usu­ally have com­pet­it­ive races of­ten get sucked away by the un­der­tow. Dis­tricts that should be safe are no longer safe. Strong cam­paigns lose to weak cam­paigns, un­der­fun­ded cam­paigns topple well-fun­ded cam­paigns.

In years like 1994 and 2006, chal­lengers who didn’t get a dime from their party’s House cam­paign com­mit­tees won any­way. Waves also swept away the party in power in 1946, 1958, 1966, and 1974. In each of these midterm elec­tions, the party in the White House lost at least 40 seats in the lower cham­ber and as many as 65 (in 2006 it was “just” 30 seats.) The biggest waves tend to oc­cur when the pres­id­ency and ma­jor­it­ies in both the House and Sen­ate are in the hands of the same party.

It would be highly un­likely for Re­pub­lic­ans to lose 40 or more seats. In many states, con­gres­sion­al-dis­trict bound­ar­ies were drawn in 2011 by Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors and state le­gis­latures, and they were ex­ceed­ingly gen­er­ous to GOP law­makers. Pop­u­la­tion pat­terns play an even big­ger role. Demo­crat­ic voters tend to be con­cen­trated in urb­an areas and col­lege towns while Re­pub­lic­an voters are more ef­fi­ciently al­loc­ated throughout the coun­try.

Gen­er­ally speak­ing, midterm elect­or­ates are older, whiter, more con­ser­vat­ive, and more Re­pub­lic­an than pres­id­en­tial elect­or­ates. But Re­pub­lic­ans still can have bad midterms: Pres­id­ent George W. Bush’s second midterm elec­tion in 2006 was a hor­ror show.

These factors are im­port­ant and might well di­min­ish the po­ten­tial for large GOP losses next year, but they don’t re­peal the laws of polit­ic­al grav­ity. They simply mean that the kind of wave that in past dec­ades might have res­ul­ted in 40- to 65-seat losses might end up as a 20- to 30-seat loss. The ma­gic num­ber in 2018 is 24. That would give the Demo­crats con­trol of the House.

Of course, we don’t know what Pres­id­ent Trump’s job-ap­prov­al rat­ings will be in the fall of 2018. We don’t know what the voter mood will be either, but right now the Demo­crat­ic base seems highly en­er­gized while the Re­pub­lic­an base is in the Slough of Des­pond. A big ques­tion is wheth­er Trump voters will be­have like Barack Obama voters. In 2008, a lot of fresh new voters came on­line to elect Obama, but in 2010, when his name was not on the bal­lot, they stayed home. When he was up for reelec­tion in 2012, they turned up at the polls again, then didn’t show up in 2014. No one needs to be re­minded that Demo­crats had good years in 2008 and 2012, and hor­rif­ic years in 2010 and 2014. Will the Trump voters who turned out in 2016 do so again when he’s not on the bal­lot?

Fi­nally, there is the mat­ter of in­cum­bent re­tire­ments and can­did­ate re­cruit­ing. There are ru­mors that a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of Re­pub­lic­an House mem­bers will re­tire while Demo­crats may stick around to see if they get back in power. Usu­ally it’s easi­er for an in­cum­bent to hold onto a seat. And while a large in­flux of first-time Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates is emer­ging, Re­pub­lic­ans who as­pire to Con­gress may wait for a more pro­pi­tious time to run.

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