Might 2014 Be a Status-Quo Election?
Given all the dissatisfaction with President Obama and his administration and the level of frustration with ObamaCare, one might expect a shellacking is on the horizon for his party in the 2014 elections. The latest round of job approval numbers shows the president’s approval still languishing in the low 40s, while approval for his health care law is even lower. That’s not an environment conducive to a strong electoral performance. On the contrary, such numbers should portend a calamitous result for Democrats in November.
We saw that kind of election in 2010 when Republicans captured six Senate seats and won just about everything in sight en route to an historic 63-seat net gain in the House. Some see a similar result looming in 2014 -- especially in the Senate. However, were the votes cast today, I believe a case can be made that the GOP, while they likely would make gains, would not perform well enough to term this cycle a wave election. There are factors on both the Senate and House fronts that seem to indicate we’re heading toward a more neutral outcome.
Let’s first take a look at the House and the factors that temper my bullishness toward the likelihood of a Republican wave in the lower chamber.
Generic congressional preference polling
There have been four elections since Bill Clinton ascended to the presidency in 1992 that I would consider "wave" elections. In 1994, Newt Gingrich and friends crafted the "Contract with America" and captured the House majority by gaining 54 seats. Congressional Republicans nationwide enjoyed a 7.1-point voting advantage over their Democratic counterparts that year. Twelve years later, Bush fatigue precipitated a wave of a different color and ushered in a run of three consecutive wave elections.
In 2006, Democrats used an 8-point advantage in congressional voting to gain 30 seats and take back control of the House. A 21-seat gain followed in 2008, aided by President Obama’s sizable triumph on the top line and an even larger 10.4% Democratic advantage at the congressional level. Then came the red tsunami of 2010. Republicans used a 6.8-point congressional voting spread to score their now famous 63-seat haul.
The average voting advantage for the victorious party over these four wave elections was 8.1% and the average net gain was 42 seats. By contrast, the average voting advantage over the six non-wave elections during the same period was just 1.7% with an average net gain of just 4.7 seats. This year, polling data measuring this critical indicator falls solidly in the non-wave range. In fact, the Democrats are currently fractionally ahead. So, it’s difficult to envision any sizable Republican gains in the House this year.
Competitive races outlook
Each wave election shares common characteristics for the party riding it -- an abundance of pickup opportunities and a dearth of vulnerable seats to defend. Election Projection wasn’t around for the Republican romp in 1994, but I do have data from the latter three wave elections to illustrate this point. By the time Election Day rolled around in 2006, EP was tracking 55 congressional races. Fifty-one were held by Republicans.
The same lopsided count benefited Republicans in 2010, only to a much greater degree. That year, Election Projection tracked 112 congressional races, a staggering number in the age of incumbent-protecting redistricting strategies. Even more remarkable is that 103 were held by Democrats! With so many vulnerable Democrats and so few vulnerable Republicans, it’s no wonder the GOP ruled the day once the votes were counted.
This year, congressional election waters seem much more placid. Election Projection is currently tracking just 46 competitive House races, and the partisan breakdown is nearly even. Twenty-one seats are held by Republicans, twenty-five by Democrats. Balance like that hardly indicates a wave is brewing out there.
One more point before we look at the Senate. In 2008, the blue team’s advantage in the competitive House races list was clear, but, at 49-18, it wasn’t as pronounced as in 2006 or 2010. Moreover, despite the largest congressional vote advantage of the last quarter-century, Democrats realized a net gain that fell short of the other three wave elections. The reason? They already held 233 seats, so there simply wasn’t as much upside for them.
That same lofty starting point faces the GOP this year. With 234 seats already in their quiver, Republicans will find it hard to produce substantial gains. And with no advantage in the congressional preference metric, they may find it hard to earn any gains at all.
Structural advantages in the Senate election line-up should produce large GOP gains in November -- with or without a Republican wave. And early polling data doesn’t fit a wave-election model.
Nearly all the battlefields are in red states
Open Democratic seats in the deep red states of Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia all but ensure GOP gains in the Senate this year. But the structural advantages for Republicans don’t end there. The four most vulnerable Democratic incumbents also hail from states won by Republican Mitt Romney in 2008. Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina are all struggling to keep their Senate seats in Republican-leaning states. Even races which have Republicans concerned, the open seat election in Georgia and Mitch McConnell’s re-election bid in Kentucky, are being waged in GOP-friendly territory.
So from a structural standpoint, this year’s Senate elections favor Republicans in a big way. With so many targets situated in Republican states, the GOP conceivably could win the Senate majority without a significant tailwind. That means a true GOP wave requires a more aggressive target. Sweeping the races I’ve mentioned would be but a baseline. To achieve wave election status, the GOP would need to add victories in blue states like Colorado, Iowa and Michigan.
Polling data is good -- but not great -- for Republican Senate candidates
So are the poll numbers there to foster confidence that such a run might come to pass for Republicans? Not at this point in the election season. Election Projection’s current Senate projections do show the GOP regaining the majority, but the massive takeover count one would expect in a wave election with such strong structural advantages just isn’t there.
Pryor leads Tom Cotton in Arkansas. Begich is ahead in Alaska. That’s two races in red states which Democrats are defending well. In Michigan, Republican Terri Land’s early leads have vanished, and while newly minted Republican nominee Joni Ernst bests Democrat Rep. Bruce Braley in two post-primary polls in Iowa, her lead seems more like a temporary primary bounce than a true advantage. Taken together, the polls show a good election is in store for Republicans, but a landslide may not be.
The political barometer, based on news cycles and voter unrest, promises a wave election for Republicans. But a deeper investigation into the underlying factors of Election 2014 paints a different picture. The overall outlook is certainly positive for the red team, but it might not deliver the kind of rout intrinsic to a wave election.
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