In a combative news conference Wednesday, President Trump claimed that Tuesday’s election returns had been “very close to a complete victory” for the GOP. Because of his personal campaigning for Republican candidates in the final weeks, Trump argued, he had effectively “stopped the blue wave that they were talking about.”
Despite the president’s self-confidence, his assessment of the midterms in general and the blue wave in particular is largely wrong. The midterm results — in which Democrats took control of the House while Republicans narrowly increased their margin in the Senate — was not a “complete victory” for either side. And by historic measures, the House results fit the loose qualifications for a blue wave.
Despite the hopes of some on the left, the pundits’ predictions for a blue wave were always limited to the House. In the struggle for the Senate, Democrats faced the longest odds confronting a party in several decades — maybe more. While Republicans had to defend only nine seats, Democrats needed to protect two dozen — 10 of which stood in red states won by Trump in 2016 — as well as those of two more independents who caucus with Democrats. This was, as veteran election handicapper Stuart Rothenberg noted, “an almost impossible map” for them. And yet, despite the odds, the Democrats will end up with, at worst, a net loss of three seats.
The House, then, was where predictions of a blue wave focused. Democrats needed to pick up 23 seats to take control of the chamber; they took heart in the fact that there were 25 House districts that Hillary Clinton had won in 2016 that were represented by seemingly vulnerable Republicans.
That, plus a wave of Republican retirements and the general mood of the country, led most observers to agree that Democrats would capture the House. In September, Washington Post columnist Dan Balz offered a meteorological guide to understanding the scale of Democrats’ likely victory: “a blue wave (enough to get 23 pickups), a blue tsunami (Democratic gains of well beyond 25), a blue tornado (picking off Republicans in a more haphazard and less predictable pattern), a strong tide, a riptide or just a blue surge (that would keep Democrats short of their goal).”
In their final predictions, most observers agreed that the results would match Balz’s definition of a “blue wave” and that Democratic gains would probably move into the “blue tsunami” category. Five major handicappers all forecast Democratic gains north of 30 seats, with a consensus in the low 30s (a sixth predicted gains of 25 to 35 seats).
With the early returns in, those predictions have held up nicely. Democrats are projected to pick up at least 30 seats, but perhaps as many as 39. As one of the forecasters, Harry Enten, put it, “if this isn’t a wave, I’d like to know what a wave is. This is this biggest net gain in the House for the Dems in the House since Watergate.” And for all the complaints about the handicappers' performance in the 2016 election, they did fairly well this time around.
Before the election, those numbers were set as the benchmark for a blue wave, and, in the end, Democrats wound up reaching them. Yet in the heat of the election night coverage, some analysts panicked over early returns and announced that there would be no blue wave at all. Around 8:30 p.m. Eastern time, the election-prediction site FiveThirtyEight dropped the odds of Democrats retaking the House from 6 in 7 to 2 in 5. “It’s not going to be a wave election,” Democratic strategist James Carville proclaimed on MSNBC. CNN’s Van Jones likewise reacted to the changed forecast by despairing that the results were “heartbreaking.” “It’s not a blue wave,” he said.
As the results slowly poured in and it became clear that Democrats would in fact retake the House, these hasty conclusions on cable news — that this wasn’t a blue wave — didn’t change even as the numbers did.
If we step back from the moment, however, and consider the recent political history of midterm elections like this one, we can see that 2018 was a blue wave after all.
In 2010, which all sides acknowledged was a wave election, Republicans won control of the House of Representatives with an impressive pickup of 63 seats. They also won six seats in the Senate, though they fell short of winning control there, too.
Some observers argued that the Republican accomplishment that year was exaggerated because of a significant number of historically red seats that had gone Democratic in 2006 and 2008 but returned to their Republican roots. And to be sure, the Republican gains were amplified by a political system that gives them a head start, thanks to the concentration of more-liberal voters, a product of natural geographic dispersal and intentional gerrymandering.
And yet, as scientist and head of the Princeton Election Consortium Sam Wang noted on Twitter, the Republican popular vote margin in 2010 was smaller than the Democratic margin this year. Republicans had a 7.2 percent edge then, compared with the currently predicted Democratic edge of 9.2 percent. And yet, for the GOP, that edge translated into a gain of nearly twice as many seats.
Whatever the reasons for the red wave, President Barack Obama had no choice but to reckon with it. “Some election nights are more fun than others, some are exhilarating,” he joked the day after the 2010 midterms. “Some are humbling.” The House results had been nothing less than a “shellacking,” he said, and he vowed to work with Republicans on a bipartisan basis moving forward.
The same pattern held true in the previous midterm elections, when Democrats retook both houses of Congress in what conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer called “the great Democratic wave of 2006.” The party picked up six seats in the Senate, bringing the chamber to a 49-49 tie that gave them effective control, thanks to the support of two independents. In the House, meanwhile, Democrats gained 31 seats to take control by a new margin of 233-202. (This is remarkably similar to this year’s results, in which Democrats are predicted to gain anywhere between 30 and 39 seats and take control with a margin between 225-210 and 233-202.)
Though aides noted he was “disappointed,” President George W. Bush took the results in stride. He began his news conference the next day in a fairly light mood: “Why all the glum faces?” Bush confronted the reality of the results, which he characterized as “the thumpin’,” and acknowledged that Americans “cast their vote for a different direction,” especially on the controversial Iraq War. “The people have spoken, and now it’s time to move on.”
Neither of these previous midterm elections is a perfect match for our moment. The 2006 midterms saw Democratic gains in the House that track closely to the Democratic gains in 2018, in terms of both the number of seats picked up and the new margin of control. But the Democrats’ success in the House was paired with a narrow takeover of the Senate as well. The 2010 midterms, like 2018, involved only a change in control of the House, but by a much larger margin.
That said, if the 2018 results aren’t as significant a wave as those prior elections, it’s nevertheless a wave all the same.
The number of seats that changed hands is ultimately less important than the fact that the chamber changed hands, and with it, control of a number of powerful congressional committees that now stand ready to fulfill their constitutional duties of providing a check on the executive and oversight of government operations in general.
Whether we call it a blue wave or a blue tsunami or something else, the crucial point is that the tide is rising quickly, and the Trump administration will soon be taking on water. As it does, the question of whether this was a blue wave — and whether “the people have spoken,” as Bush put it, and rebuked the sitting president — will certainly matter. That’s why it’s critical that we correctly understand what happened Tuesday.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Sam Wang as a political scientist. He is actually a scientist and the director of the Princeton Election Consortium.
This post has been updated.