How High the Wave? Don’t Just Think 1994; Think 1974, 1958, 1982

Stuart Rothenberg October 26, 2006 · 12:02 AM EDT

With only a couple of weeks until Election Day, we know there will be a Democratic wave on Nov. 7. And we can be fairly certain that by historical standards it will be high – possibly very high. But we still don’t know how many Republicans once considered safe will be swept out of office.

The national political environment currently is worse than it was in 1994, when the Democrats lost 52 House seats, eight Senate seats and 10 governorships, and when Republicans won GOP control of the House for the first time in decades.

You heard me right: It’s worse this year than it was in 1994, when voters were dissatisfied with the first two years of the Bill Clinton presidency.

President Bush’s approval ratings are worse than Clinton’s were – Bush’s are in the upper 30s, while Clinton’s were in the mid-to-upper 40s – and the 16 percent approval rating for Congress in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll ranks far below where Congress stood prior to the 1994 midterms (24 percent).

Similarly, the generic ballot in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll was much closer back in ’94, when Republicans held a 5-point edge right before the elections. Now, there’s a 15-point Democratic advantage.

Moreover, the problems hounding Republican Congressional candidates – which range from a second midterm election (as compared to a less dangerous first midterm in the Clinton administration) to House scandals to an unpopular war – are far more challenging than anything Democratic Congressional candidates faced in 1994.

If you are looking for a midterm election year that is comparable to 2006, you need to move beyond 1994 to include other recent “wave” midterms, particularly 1974, 1958 and 1982. In 1974 and 1958, the president’s party, in each case the Republicans, lost 48 seats. In 1982, Republicans lost 26.

Each of these three elections holds a lesson for anyone trying to understand what is likely to happen in House races on Nov. 7.

The 1994 midterm was about Clinton – particularly the Clinton health care plan, gays in the military and his perceived liberalism.

In 1982, the election was about Ronald Reagan and “his recession.”

In 1974, the election was about Richard Nixon and Watergate, and then-President Gerald Ford’s September pardon of the disgraced former president. To some extent, it also was about a party that too frequently seemed to defend and shield Nixon.

And the 1958 election was about a farm recession and dissatisfaction with the Eisenhower administration in a part of the country that made up a big chunk of the GOP’s base.

I don’t count 1966 as a midterm wave, although Democrats lost 47 seats in the House while holding the White House. Rather, that midterm was a rebound election, coming two years after the GOP’s disastrous 1964 presidential election.

Given that, the past four true midterm wave elections saw the victorious party winning 52, 48, 48 and 26 seats, suggesting a reasonable range for success for Democrats this year.

Given that the political environment right now is worse for Republicans than at any time since 1974 – and that Republicans hold 232 House seats, which is far, far above their level in any of the four previous cycles – their vulnerability is great.

Of course, it matters where a party starts, since an overextended party (that is, one holding lots of seats that ought to belong to the opposition) inevitably has more seats at risk, while one that holds relatively few districts has fewer to lose.

The GOP’s 48-seat loss in 1974 was stunning because the party started the election holding fewer than 200 seats. In 1982, Republicans lost 26 seats starting at roughly the same point.

While the GOP isn’t overextended now, its 15-seat majority suggests it is now near the upper limit of its “normal” range. It holds a few Democratic seats, and Democrats hold a few Republican seats, but most districts are represented by the “correct” party. Still, with Republicans holding 232 seats in the House, the party has plenty of districts to lose.

So where does this leave us?

With the national environment being as it is – and given the last round of redistricting, which limits possible Democratic gains – Republicans probably are at risk to lose as few as 45 seats and as many as 60 seats, based on historical results. Given how the national mood compares to previous wave years and to the GOP’s 15-seat House majority, Democratic gains almost certainly would fall to the upper end of that range.

The paucity of competitive districts limits Republican risk, but how much? Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer. But if redistricting cuts that kind of wave by half, Democrats would gain between 22 and 30 seats next month. And if the new districts slice Democratic gains by a smaller but still significant one-third, Democrats would pick up from 30 to 45 seats.

Dangerously big waves can be very strong and very unpredictable. They can bring widespread destruction and chaos. Republicans now must hope that this year’s midterm wave isn’t as bad as national poll numbers suggest it could be, because those national numbers suggest a truly historic tidal wave.