The Washington Post

Will 2014 be a wave election? Not likely.


Political waves have crashed on one party or the other repeatedly in recent years.

In 2006, 2008 and 2010, large numbers of House seats traded sides — Democrats reaped the benefits in ’06 and ’08 while Republicans gained a whopping 63 seats in ’10 — thanks to a political environment heavily tilted in one direction and orbiting around a handful of big, national issues.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House. View Archive

So, with a government shutdown in the rearview mirror, an ongoing budget battle and, of course, Obamacare swirling in the political ether, the natural tendency is to assume that the 2014 midterm elections will be — yet another — wave vote.

Not likely, at least according to The Post’s Monkey Cage blog, which released its first prediction from its 2014 House forecasting model this week — a net loss of five seats for Democrats.

Writes Monkey Cage’s John Sides: “That may seem like a small loss for the Democrats — perhaps ‘too small,’ given the rocky rollout of Obamacare and the loss that the president’s party typically sustains in midterm elections. But there aren’t that many Democratic seats for the taking, thanks to the Republicans’ huge gains in 2010. There are currently 24 seats held by Democrats where Obama received less vote share than his national average in 2012. In 2010, there were 69 such seats.”

Sides is exactly right. While a wave is always possible — politics is inherently unpredictable — one that would wipe out a major number of Democrats (or Republicans) would have to be absolutely massive in scope, simply because of the relative safety most incumbents in both parties enjoy.

Consider the following:

●There are a total of 77 districts — 17.7 percent of the total House — where the current member was elected with 55 percent or less of the vote in 2012, according to tabulations by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. But, less than half that number — 33 — are places where the incumbent won with 52 percent or less. (Of that 33, 19 are held by Democrats, 14 by Republicans.) If you take 52 percent and under as the true mark of seats that would switch sides in any sort of wave election scenario, you are talking about 7.5 percent of the total House.

●According to Cook’s Partisan Voting Index (PVI), a measure of the relative partisanship of every district compared with every other district, there are only 15 Democrats sitting in seats with a Republican PVI score (meaning the seats vote more Republican than the country as a whole) and just five Republicans sitting in seats with a Democratic PVI score. There are nine more districts — six held by Democrats, three by Republicans — that are rated as having an “even” PVI, meaning they are right in the center of the national electorate. That’s 29 seats out of 435 — or about 7 percent of the entire House.

There’s also this historical fact: In the 16 elections since 1982, only three — in 1994, 2006 and 2010 — have produced net House gains of more than 30 seats for one party. The tendency in the political community is to assume the recent past is everything, and so 2006 and 2010 are seen as beacons of what 2014 will become. Time may show that to be true — we are living in unprecedented political times — but you could also make the argument that the period from 2006 through 2010 was an anomaly while what happened in the elections between 1996 and 2004 — in which the average pickup was a meager four House seats — remains the rule.

Viewed broadly, there just aren’t that many districts that a wave could wipe away. That’s not to say, of course, that Democrats have no hope of picking up the 17 seats they need to win back the House, since such a gain would fall well short of our traditional definitions of a wave election. What is clear — from the Monkey Cage model, the Cook data and a look back at history — is that the vast majority of the 435 House seats are now located far in the political inland, entirely protected from even an epic wave.

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