This is Not a Wave Election


ELECTION DAY UPDATE: Everything that I wrote on Friday is still valid— this shouldn't be considered a wave election unless Republicans gain governorships and do well in blue states, regardless of what happens in the Senate. The only change that I'd make with 4 more days of data is to up my prediction of the most likely outcome in the Senate to a Republican gain of 6, from a Republican gain of 5. 

I'm not an election handicapper, nor do I have any desire to be one. I have a great deal of respect for handicappers Charlie Cook and Stuart Rothenberg, and for political writers/race rankers like Chris Cillizza and Josh Kraushaar, but I feel compelled to offer a counter-perspective given the number of columnists, handicappers, etc. who seem to be predicting a Republican wave on Tuesday. 

This will not be a wave election. I'm not sure what the outcome will be. A lot is still in doubt, and more than in the recent past, there are an extremely large number of races that are very close. Republicans may well gain control of the Senate, in which case, the media is likely to dramatically overstate the meaning of the win. But even Republicans gaining control of the Senate will not signal that a wave occurred, or even that a national repudiation of the Democratic Party took place. 

We're not seeing the sorts of indications that we would expect to see if a wave election was days from occurring. 

As Nate Silver writes, "Nor are the polls asserting we’re in the sort of substantially Republican-leaning national environment that prevailed in 2010, a year when Democrats lost Senate races in purple states such as Ohio and New Hampshire by double-digit margins. Instead, the generic congressional ballot shows a rough tie between Democrats and Republicans on a likely voter basis (or perhaps puts the GOP ahead by a percentage point or so). This is much different than in 2010, when it gave Republicans a 7- or 8-point edge."

Silver goes on to explain that Republicans may gain substantially in the Senate because almost all of the key races are taking place in ruby red states. He notes that Democrats, "could lose the Senate by losing seats in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia — states that voted for Mitt Romney by an average of 19 percentage points in 2012." 

I'm quoting Silver extensively not because I think that he's that much better of a prognosticator than others in business, but rather because this depiction matches my view of the current electoral situation, and it made more sense to quote Silver than to come up with an original way of stating the same facts. 

I see evidence that, regardless of the Senate outcome, this won't be a wave. While some are predicting disaster for Democrats in the House, other signs exist that Republicans aren't putting races away that would be slam dunks in wave conditions.  

For example, in an open seat in Utah in a district Mitt Romney won by 37 points, Mia Love, a Republican who lost to Democratic incumbent Jim Mathieson in 2012 by less than 3,000 votes, would be a shoe in under wave conditions. Indeed, she was considered to be a shoe in just last week.

Stuart Rothenberg, who thinks that Tuesday will produce better results for Republicans than I do, actually described the Utah race as a House seat "sure to flip." Yet, two recent public polls, show Love up by a mere 5 points (which is down from a 9 point lead two weeks ago and a twelve point lead in August in the same poll) and DOWN by 3 points

Love may yet win, but if a wave was building, she would be up by double digits unless she was under criminal indictment given the tilt of her district. 

Similarly, under wave conditions, Fred Upton, the Chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, would be walloping his Democratic opponent. Yet, signs are that the race is tighter than expected. Upton recently added a $250,000 ad buy for the campaign's final days. 

By contrast, I cannot think of a single House race in a wave election that came onto the radar late in which the incumbent getting surprised did not come from the party about to be felled by the wave. Typically, the congressmen who succumb to wave conditions when they seemed safe only days earlier are members of the majority who would have been safe under any other scenario, similar to Representative David Price (D-NC) in 1994 (who later regained his seat). 

Perhaps more importantly, I cannot find a wave election in which the party getting crushed in House/Senate races defeated a substantial number of sitting governors from the other party (though there is no standard definition of a wave election, I considered 1958, 1966, 1982, 1986, 1994, 2006, and 2010, all years in which the out party made substantial congressional gains).

In 1986, Democrats gained 8 Senate seats, while Republicans netted 8 statehouses. But Republicans only defeated two incumbent Democratic governors, benefitting instead from a large number of open seat gubernatorial elections. 

Yet, on Tuesday, one Republican governor, Tom Corbett (PA) is universally expected to lose, and 7 others (Scott Walker (WI), Rick Snyder (MI), Sam Brownback (KS), Paul LePage (ME), Nathan Deal (GA), Sean Parnell (AK), and Rick Scott (FL)) are in serious trouble, either trailing in the Real Clear Politics polling average, or leading by less than 3 points. 

Now, it's not impossible that Republicans might gain statehouses. Indeed, Democratic governors in Illinois, Colorado, and Connecticut have problems of their own, and Republicans are favored to win the open seats in Arkansas and Massachusetts (and open seats in Rhode Island and Maryland are still in play). 

But the situation facing both governors and House members lends more credence to my theory that this is an anti-incumbent (or anti-incumbent party) election, not an anti-Democratic election. The public is in a foul mood, and dislikes/blames both parties at the moment. 

None of this is to say that Tuesday will go well for Democrats. Very little would surprise me at this point. I could envision Republicans narrowly sweeping all of the close elections, and thus gaining something like 8-9 Senate seats, 10-12 House Seats, and maybe 1 governorship (in fact my hunch is that if all of the close Senate races break Republican (including those in blue/purple states like Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, and North Carolina), the gubernatorial races will also break Republican, just because we haven't seen such a split previously). 

Yet, I think the more likely scenario is an outcome in which Republicans win 4-5 Senate races, maybe 5 House seats, and Democrats pick up 5 governorships. Under this scenario, it would not surprise me to see some congressmen from both parties who do not seem to be at risk today upset. 

Why? We simply don't have very much public polling in House races. Additionally, in states like Pennsylvania with an unpopular Republican governor at the top of the ticket, and Virginia, with a relatively popular Democratic Senator at the top of the ticket, I could see the top of the ticket dragging down a Republican House member or two. Conversely, I could see Democratic House members toppled in states where Democrats do not have an extensive field operation like Nevada. 

My hunch is that a more mixed outcome is most likely because while the President is extremely unpopular, the Republican brand is equally tarnished. As such, I can't see Republicans making large gains. I also think that Republicans will suffer in states where they have had unified control of government, and the electorate is unhappy with the results, such as Kansas and Georgia. 

In sum, I see this election playing out more like 1992, when angry voters threw incumbents from both parties out of office than like the waves of 1994, 2006 or 2010.