Comparing Wave and Calm Elections


Is there something magical and mystical about the number five in elections? After the tsunami of 1994, there were five straight elections that were “calm elections” (1996-2004) and then five straight elections that could be considered wave elections.

(A valid argument can be made that despite the size of the Obama win, Democratic gains in the House and Senate in 2012 were so underwhelming that the “wave” designation was overstated.)

Well, the answer is no. There is nothing magical about two very different sets of five elections, but the differences in both sets underscore how much volatility there is in American politics today.

Let’s look at the House first. Table 1 below shows calm, clear sailing for incumbents in most of the 1996-2004 elections, while it shows a whiplash of waves from 2006-2014:

Table 1: House election results, 1996-2014

Several points jump out:

  • From 1996 to 2004, 31 Republican incumbents and 14 Democratic incumbents lost for a total of 45 incumbent losers.
  • Of those 31 Republicans, 18 lost in the 1996 correction after the 1994 tsunami when a number of Republicans won seats they had no business holding.
  • Comparatively, from 2006-2014, 59 Republican and at least 73 Democratic incumbents lost for a minimum of 131 incumbent losers. (I use “at least” because several Democratic incumbents are still imperiled in some districts that are not 100% counted.)
  • That’s nearly three times as many incumbent losers in the last five elections than in the previous five.
  • The other big difference in the wave series is the net shift in House seats. From 1996-2004, there was a total of just 24 seat shifts in November (thus not including special elections).
  • From 2006-2014 however, there have been swings totaling 128 seats — more than five times as many as the previous five elections.

Clearly one of the calling cards of a wave is that there are double-digit incumbent losses in one party. Another mark is that there is a double-digit shift in House seats overall to one party or the other.

An argument can be made that 2012 does not really fit the model for a wave, because Republicans only lost seven net seats (and less than five in the Senate as you will see below). It might be a bit of a stretch to call 2012 a wave, but I think the size of the Obama electoral vote victory tips the scale toward calling it a Democratic wave.

The Senate is not as dramatic as the House, but there are still a few clear differences between the smoother political sailing of 1996-2004 to the turbulent waves in the last five elections:

Table 2: Senate election results, 1996-2014

Key points include:

  • From 1996-2004, nine Republican and five Democratic incumbent senators lost in their November elections, for a total of 14.
  • By contrast, for the most recent five elections, 12 Republicans and at least six Democrats (not counting Mary Landrieu) have lost for a total of 18.
  • Admittedly, the difference between 14 and 18 incumbent losses in the two sets of five elections each is not that significant.
  • However, the difference between the two eras in terms of net shifts is more noteworthy. There were only 11 net shifts in the 1996-2004 elections, compared to at least 29 net shifts in the five elections since (that will go to 30 if Landrieu loses Louisiana).

With the exception of 2012, the other four wave elections had a minimum of five seats shift from one party to the other. For the previous five calm elections, a shift of four was the high. So, on the Senate side, it is arguable that the over/under on a wave is five.

Compared to the other elections, 2012 makes a pretty strong case that Obama’s wave was personal, because it did not fully extend to Senate and House Democrats. Some of the Democratic failures to capitalize on the Obama win in their House campaigns is a direct result of Republican control of redistricting — Democrats netted 10 challenger gains but lost ground in the open seats!

Will we ever see a calm election again? Well, almost certainly. This run of wave elections is unprecedented in modern political history. And, the first rule of political forecasting is that, as I like to quote myself saying, “Trends are trends until they change,” which I postulated after Bill Clinton did not just pick, but smashed, the once powerful Republican Electoral Lock. At some point the tide of wave elections will roll out and calm elections will occur again.

Glen Bolger is one of the Republican Party’s leading political strategists and pollsters. He is a partner and co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, a national political and public affairs survey research firm whose clients include leading political figures, Fortune 500 companies, and major associations.