The myth of the looming GOP ‘wave’

Yutaka Oshima and his dog Jack ride on a wave during the animal surfing portion of the Mabo Royal Kj Cup surfing contest at Tsujido beach in Fujisawa, Kanagawa prefecture on July 6, 2014. AFP PHOTO/Toshifumi KITAMURATOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images
Yutaka Oshima and his dog Jack ride on a wave during the animal surfing portion of the Mabo Royal Kj Cup surfing contest at Tsujido beach in Fujisawa, Kanagawa prefecture, on July 6. (TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images)

A new narrative seems to be forming with about two months to go in the 2014 election: The GOP wave isn't forming.

Here's the Post's Eugene Robinson over the weekend in a piece aptly titled "The wave has yet to materialize":

All in all, you still have to give the edge to the GOP. But it is a surprisingly narrow and tenuous advantage in a year when some analysts were predicting a wave election in favor of Republicans.

So far, just ripples. Why could that be?

Politico took a stab at a similar question on Tuesday, writing about how the GOP appears primed for only minimal gains in the House:

Tepid fundraising, underperforming candidates and a lousy party brand are threatening to deprive House Republicans of the sweeping 2014 gains that some top party officials have been predicting this year.

Politico's take, which surveyed many top GOP strategists, is especially worth a read, given the very real concerns highlighted. What the new narrative overstates, though, is the idea that a "wave" was actually forming.

(Update: Folks rightly point out that some Republicans, including NRCC Chairman Greg Walden, have predicted a wave. So it's not like this notion came out of nowhere or was invented by journalists.)

Sure, for months the talk has been that Republicans are favored to win the six seats necessary to retake the Senate. That still seems about as likely as it did before, give or take. But it never required -- or even really suggested -- a genuine wave election.

A six-seat gain in the Senate would generally constitute something of a wave, but 2014 is quite an unusual election year. Republicans have a significant Senate minority (effectively 55-45) but a pretty good-sized House majority (233-199). That means gains in the Senate were always going to be easier to come by -- and especially given a tantalizing 2014 map for the GOP that includes seven red states held by Democrats and very few legitimate Democratic targets.

The increasing odds that Republicans would take the Senate weren't really about a sharp shift toward the GOP in the electoral environment. In fact, the two most common indicators of a potential shift in the national environment have been all but constant for the entire year.

Here's President Obama's approval rating since the start of the year, per Gallup:


And here's the generic congressional ballot (i.e., would you vote for a generic Republican or a generic Democrat?), per Huffington Post's Pollster:

The GOP improved its Senate hopes with strong recruiting and successful primaries on what was already a very favorable Senate map. The idea that a wave -- something that sweeps into office unlikely GOP candidates -- was building isn't really borne out in the numbers.

There certainly are Republicans who probably hoped that the Senate momentum -- and an emerging enthusiasm gap that favors the GOP -- would preclude big momentum in the House, but that was always a much tougher slog.

The current Republican majority, which features 233 out of 435 members, is the second-biggest GOP contingent in the House in the last 60 years. Below is a look at the percentage of the House that is Republican.

Now, the House GOP doesn't have a huge majority -- it's less than 54 percent of the House -- and a big reason it looks so big in comparison to previous decades is that Democrats dominated the House for four decades before the GOP retook it in 1994.

But there are also the matters of increasing partisanship and high-tech gerrymandering. In contrast to the early 20th century, there are very few seats actually in play anymore. And for Republicans to expand their majority far beyond their current edge, they need to basically run the table in most of the winnable seats on the map.

There are only seven Democrat-held districts that Mitt Romney carried in 2012 and only 19 others that President Obama won by fewer than double digits. That certainly leaves room for GOP growth, but in a normal wave year (like 2010, for example), you see dozens and dozens of winnable seats. For the GOP to expand the map beyond 20-25 winnable seats would take a massive wave.

Further handicapping the GOP's ability to expand the playing field is a poor party brand that remains worse than the Democratic brand -- along with other problems Politico laid out, including lackluster fundraising and underperforming candidates.

That could prevent the GOP from winning several very winnable House races in what's looking like a favorable national environment. But that's quite different from saying they're going to miss a genuine GOP wave.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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