How Many Wins Make Up a 'Wave'?

By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 13, 2006

There is no doubt that Democrats did well on Tuesday, capturing almost 30 seats in the House, six seats in the Senate and control of both chambers. But was it the Democratic "wave" that so many had believed was about to sweep the country?

Republican leaders said it was not. Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.), who led the GOP's House campaign committee, said it was simply "a matter of history repeating itself." On the day of the elections, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman warned of a "six-year itch."

By some measures, the Republicans are right. Since World War II, the party in the White House has tended to lose seats in Congress in the sixth year of an administration, and the average losses matched this year's -- 29 seats in the House and six in the Senate. When there was an unpopular war, the losses were greater.

But political scientists say that assessment of Tuesday's results ignores an important change in recent years. They say Republicans have re-engineered the political map, stuffing congressional districts with supporters to make the districts reliably pro-GOP. The financial and electoral advantages of incumbency, moreover, have reached new heights.

The election results are "actually huge because of the structural advantage Republicans had going into the election. Democrats had very little low-hanging fruit," said Gary C. Jacobson, a scholar of congressional elections at the University of California at San Diego.

Although Democratic gains were substantial, they might not have been the "historic election" of which incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) boasted last week. "It's more than the Republicans claim it is, but it's much too early to say it's equivalent to the huge upheavals we've had in the past," said Walter Dean Burnham, a professor emeritus at the University of Texas.

In five midterm elections since World War II -- in 1946, 1958, 1966, 1974 and 1994 -- the president's party lost more seats in the House than the GOP did this year. The losses in two midterm years were comparable to this year's, while in eight they were smaller. On the Senate side, the president's party lost more seats four times, the same number once and fewer seats 10 times.

The most common comparison to 2006 is 1994, the year of the last "wave" election, when the GOP picked up 55 House seats, nine Senate seats and control of both houses. But political scientists are divided on whether 2006 stacks up to 1994.

Judging by the number of seats gained, 2006 clearly does not, but other figures suggest it does. The average vote received by the Democratic candidate in the nation's 435 congressional districts was 55 percent this year, compared with 51.6 percent for Republicans in 1994, according to Andrew Gelman, a professor at Columbia University.

What's more, many GOP gains in 1994 came in districts that had been trending Republican for years, especially in the South. In contrast, the Democratic wins last week largely came in districts that had voted for President Bush in 2004. "Democrats had a lot fewer targets than the Republicans [in 1994], but they took a larger share of their victories from the tough districts," Jacobson said.

But John Coleman, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, argues that in influencing the political views of the electorate, the Republicans' victory in 1994 was more dramatic. That year, he said, voters endorsed a clearly defined conservative philosophy embodied in the GOP's "Contract With America."

"That campaign was overtly more ideological in direction," Coleman said. "The Democratic Party didn't really need to make much of an ideological case in 2006. You don't have that sense, going in, of a strong push in some other ideological direction."

Nonpartisan analysts in Washington invoked wave metaphors throughout the campaign. Stuart Rothenberg, author of a political newsletter, predicted a Democratic "wave," and after the election, said, "Of course we had a wave." Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report wrote in her column, "Instead of a wave that wiped out everything in its path, this political storm zig zagged its way across the country."

Lawrence Jacobs, a professor at the University of Minnesota, said Tuesday's outcome offered a new twist on "wave" elections: More than 90 percent of incumbents were reelected, but the election is viewed as a mandate for change.

Asked Jacobs: "How do you talk about an election where there was clearly an important change in who controls the majority and it was a setback for the Republican project, but we see so much continuity from one Congress to the next?"

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