Wave of Change Expected on Election Day

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By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The wave is coming.

At least that is what political scientists are predicting about the midterm elections on Nov. 7. The academics could be wrong, of course; they often are.

But one of the peculiar facts about American politics is that every once in a while citizens in disparate parts of the country decide in the same year to reject an unusually large number of candidates for Congress from one party and to replace them with candidates from the other party.

That kind of outpouring is known as a wave, and it last occurred 12 years ago when Republicans gained a whopping 53 seats in the House and took control of that chamber for the first time in 40 years. Polls are now showing signs that the tide of public opinion is flowing in the opposite direction and that voters could vote Republicans out of office in droves this year, returning Democrats to power in the House and possibly in the Senate as well.

"This is going to be a wave year," said Larry J. Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "The only question is whether it will be medium-size wave or a high wave for the Democrats."

Indiana State University's Carl Klarner and Stan Buchanan used fancy computer models in June to predict that Democrats would pick up 22 seats in the House, enough to give them 224 seats, six more than they would need for majority control. Alan I. Abramowitz of Emory University in Atlanta used his own model last month to forecast that Democrats would gain 29 House seats. The professors did not predict that Democrats would take charge of the Senate -- a six-seat gain is needed to win a majority there -- though they do envision Democratic gains in that body of two to three seats.

Nonetheless, the realization of these numbers would constitute a wave.

This year's anti-Republican swell -- if it arrives in the dimensions professors imagine -- would be a wavelet by historical standards, said Linda L. Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College. Voting waves were tsunami-size in the 19th and 20th centuries. Seven times before World War II and once afterward (in 1948), 70 or more seats flipped in the House.

But no one is expecting a change of that magnitude this year.

The main reason is that most congressional districts have been carefully reconfigured in recent decades to elect candidates from one party regardless of the national mood. "Democrats have relatively few seats available to them that are now being held by the other party," said Gary C. Jacobson of the University of California at San Diego.

Incumbents also have towering advantages in both financial resources and access to communications with constituents that make them difficult to unseat. In addition, negative campaign commercials and citizens' persistent apathy toward government have tended to keep voter turnout low, which primarily helps incumbents, especially GOP incumbents, election experts agree.

But a big turnover of seats is still possible. In fact, a wave has struck Congress once or twice a decade for the past 50 years.

These have mostly come in midterm elections -- when presidential candidates were not on the ballot -- including 1958, 1966, 1974, 1986 (in the Senate) and 1994. Occasionally a wave will come in a presidential election year, as it did in 1980.

What all of these movements have in common is that they happened when most voters were unhappy with the president. "A general sense of dissatisfaction with the president and his party is often a cause of a wave, as it was in 1994 under Bill Clinton," Abramowitz said. "The lower the president's job approval rating, the more seats his party tends to lose in the House."

The party that controls the White House routinely loses at least some House seats during midterm elections. But presidents who are broadly disliked compound that effect, sometimes enough to produce waves that dash members of his party. That is why even Republicans are acknowledging the strong possibility of a wave this year; President Bush's job approval rating has dipped below 40 percent lately, a dangerously low number.

Recent waves have also coincided with highly publicized scandals (in 1974, it was Watergate) and unpopular wars (in 1966, it was Vietnam). This year Bush and his party are facing both -- the fallout from the Jack Abramoff and Mark Foley scandals as well as widespread disapproval of the war in Iraq. "With a combination of scandal and war, the makings of a wave are all there," said John J. Pitney Jr. of Claremont McKenna College in California.

Thomas F. Schaller of the University of Maryland Baltimore County said Republicans have been holding off an inevitable congressional correction for at least two election cycles because of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A welling up of patriotism kept the GOP strong. But enough time has passed since then for that to have subsided. Now, Schaller said, "the wave is ready to break."

Wave elections frequently end up being larger and they knock off more incumbents than was initially anticipated. "Typical of a wave is that there are some lawmakers who seem safe on Election Day, but they turn out to be losers on election night," Pitney said.

Then again, predictions of waves come and go, like tides themselves, and they do not always come to true. "You can tell that a wave happened afterwards," said James A. Thurber, a political scientist at American University. "That's when people amend their stories about them."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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