Are we still headed for a Democratic wave in the House next month? That all depends on how you define a wave. But one thing is clear: Democrats are still likely to flip the chamber even after all the buzz about a post-Kavanaugh Republican bounce.
A wave occurs when a large number of one party’s seats flip to the other party, invariably because of a national political figure (the president, usually) or a national issue. Many competitive seats change hands, and at least a few entrenched incumbents suddenly find themselves in trouble.
How many seats need to flip to constitute a wave? 20 seats? 30? 50?
The best way to answer that unanswerable question is to look at history.
During the 17 midterm elections that have occurred since 1950, five have produced single-digit changes, while another four have been in the teens and low double digits. Three elections have produced net changes from 26 to 30 seats, while five more have produced gains of 48 to 63 seats.
The single-digit changes — in 1962, 1986, 1990, 1998 and 2002 — clearly were not waves. One party cherry-picked enough seats to make a net gain, but there was no sign of national political momentum.
The teens/low double-digit change elections — in 1954, 1970, 1978 and 2014 — may have reflected one party’s advantage, but for me, the net changes don’t constitute a substantial enough surge for one side to be defined as a wave election.
Not a science
I’ve always used 20 seats or even 25 seats as the minimum number of seats that a party needs to gain before calling an election a wave, though I don’t think there is a magic number.
In part, the number of seats that need to switch depends on where the two parties start.
Moreover, not all waves are alike. There are smaller waves (20-30 seats) and larger ones (48 seats each in 1958, 1966 and 1974) — and there are tsunamis, including 1994, when Republicans gained 54 seats, and 2010, when they gained 63 seats.
This cycle, a modest wave has been developing for months. President Donald Trump’s job approval has been low, and voters have told pollsters they want a Democratic Congress as a check on him.
Trump’s job approval climbed in the Oct. 14-17 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, but that survey also gave Democrats a 9-point advantage (50 percent to 41 percent) in the generic ballot among likely midterm voters. And while Republican enthusiasm has grown over the last month, it fails to match Democratic enthusiasm.
Women and college-educated whites have moved strongly toward the Democrats, and younger and minority voters appear unusually energized.
More important at this point of the election cycle, surveys in individual congressional districts show GOP-held suburban districts like Virginia’s 10th District (Barbara Comstock), Colorado’s 6th (Mike Coffman), New Jersey’s 11th (retiring Rodney Frelinghuysen’s open seat) and Kansas’ 3rd (Kevin Yoder) poised to flip.
Incumbents in these and similar districts have proved that they can win even in difficult political environments, but a wave is an entirely different matter since it makes the election about someone else (in this case, Trump and Republican control of the House), not the individual Republican nominee or member of Congress.
Of course, not all seats behave the same way even during a political wave. Not even all suburban seats behave the same way.
Candidates and their campaigns matter. Strategists from both parties have very different views of the current House playing field and how it has changed.
GOP strategists generally express confidence that the party’s “worst case” scenario has been avoided, thanks to the confirmation fight surrounding Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.
They once feared losses of 40 to 50 seats, but now generally expect somewhat fewer losses, probably in the 30-40 seat range.
A veteran Democrat I spoke with laughed at the prospect that Democrats were ever going to win 50 seats, insisting that 30 or 35 seats was always a more reasonable number.
Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales has projected Democratic gains of 25-35 seats, a “Category 1” hurricane that would produce a wave that would cost Republicans the House but wouldn’t produce anything close to a 1994 or 2010 tsunami.
In an early September column, I found Democrats heading for a gain of about 30 seats, with larger gains very possible, though I have generally been saying that I expect Democratic gains in the 30-40 seat range. I see no reason to alter that expectation.
Others, of course, have suggested that Democratic prospects in the House were much greater a month ago and have dimmed of late.
Some districts do look worse for Democrats, while others suddenly look intriguing, but that is the nature of campaigns — and of political handicapping.
Moreover, it is quite possible that some of those who once expected greater Republican losses were overly optimistic about Democratic prospects.
Pennsylvania, California and New Jersey continue to be prime Democratic targets, but there are many races that are still competitive, including Kansas’ 2nd District, Maine’s 2nd, Kentucky’s 6th, Florida’s 15th and 26th, New Mexico’s 2nd, Virginia’s 2nd and Iowa’s 3rd.
Republicans, on the other hand, will win a Pennsylvania open seat and are likely to swipe one or two pro-Trump districts in Minnesota.
Although I have watched House campaigns and elections closely for almost four decades, I’m less confident I know how this cycle will end.
Trump, after all, is an untraditional figure, and that makes his impact uncertain. But for now, just two weeks before Election Day, the contours of the 2018 midterm elections haven’t changed dramatically in the House.
The focus remains primarily on suburban districts, college-educated whites, younger voters and minorities, not on rural and evangelical voters or whites without a college education. The House is still poised to flip party control.
This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 23, 2018.