Are We Headed for Four Wave Elections in a Row?

Stuart Rothenberg February 3, 2011 · 9:50 AM EDT

Our current streak of “wave” elections — where one party experiences a net loss of at least 20 House seats and the other party has minimal losses — now stands at three (31 seats in 2006, 20 seats in 2008 and 63 seats in 2010), a remarkable string given our recent history of single-digit swings.

In the five election cycles before 2006, net House seat changes didn’t reach the double digits even once, and from the 1986 midterms to the 2004 elections the net partisan change in the House reached double digits only twice — 11 seats in 1992 and 53 seats in the wave year of 1994 (according to Harold Stanley and Richard Niemi’s Vital Statistics on American Politics, 2007-08, Page 52).

The last time that partisan swings of at least 20 seats occurred for four elections in a row was during the 1946-48-50-52 cycles, when Democrats won huge gains in 1948 and Republicans had large gains in the other three cycles.

There is an even longer string of 20-plus seat swings earlier in the century, from 1910 to 1924, eight elections in a row. This was, of course, a period of considerable churning in American politics, with the progressive movement and the socialists challenging the major parties.

What are the chances that we’ll see yet another big swing — to either the Democrats or the Republicans — in the 2012 elections?

The scenario for a fourth consecutive House wave in 2012, which Democrats would need in order to win back the House, isn’t outlandish.

With unemployment unlikely to drop precipitously between now and November of 2012 (and the nation’s economic rebound threatened by new concerns about the Middle East), the government divided between a Republican House and a Democratic Senate and White House, and a presidential election already well under way, the current chatter about civility and bipartisanship is likely to give way quickly to stark partisan divides.

Since neither party can afford to give a victory to the other, and since the importance of each party’s base will grow as the 2012 elections near, gridlock is more likely than any other outcome. Republicans and Democrats will blame each other for the impasse.

This, in turn, will lead voters to feel that those in power are out of touch or unwilling to deal with the important issues of the day, leading to more voter dissatisfaction and frustration.

Republicans are likely to push for another “change” election to replace President Barack Obama with a Republican, while Democrats are likely to argue that Republicans were inflexible and blocked policies that would lead to economic growth — in other words, that they oppose change.

The resulting back-and-forth attacks could further alienate voters, leading to another voter revolt against either Democrats or the GOP — depending on which party wins the blame game — and to a fourth consecutive wave election.

But if the wave scenario just outlined is possible, at this early stage in the election cycle, another wave probably isn’t likely.

If the public mood continues to improve (most likely because of an improving economic outlook and a dip in unemployment), voters are most likely to reward incumbents of both parties. That would be good news for Obama and House Republicans, each of whom would not hesitate to take credit for the good news.

Indeed, that’s exactly what happened in 1956, when Republican President Dwight Eisenhower was re-elected easily (carrying 41 of 48 states and winning 57 percent of the popular vote), while Democrats added a couple of seats to their existing House majority.

Morning in America is good for all incumbents, regardless of party.

If the national mood sours, divided government is likely to promote partisan finger pointing in the nation’s capital. Democrats will stand behind Obama, while Republicans line up against him.

The key voter group, independents, who swung wildly from 2004 to 2006 (toward the Democrats) and again from 2008 to 2010 (toward the Republicans), is more likely to be conflicted this time than it was in either 2008 or 2010, splitting the vote more equally between the two parties than it did in 2006 or 2010.

Some will be drawn to Obama’s personal appeal, while others will fault him for the deficit or the lack of a jobs rebound. More than a few will be so frustrated with the inability of either party to produce jobs and create optimism that they will tune out entirely.

Democrats probably stand the better chance to gain if another wave election develops.

Republicans hold so many swing and Democratic-leaning districts that their prospects for adding 20 seats to their majority appear small, while Democrats should retake some districts that they never should have lost and could benefit from a significantly more Democratic electorate next year.

Still, redistricting remains a wild card, and Democratic prospects are inherently tied to Obama’s performance. At this point, even another GOP wave can’t be ruled out.

In any case, divided government makes the development of another House wave unlikely. Few Republicans expected another big House loss in 2008 immediately after the 2006 elections, and in the winter and spring of 2009, there were no signs of a GOP House wave developing. In other words, some waves develop when you least expect them.