Not All Waves Are Created Equal

Significant debate in academic and political circles has been generated regarding the results of November.  Some call it a wave, others call it a ripple.  Depending on how you look at it and what you compare it to reasonable arguments can be made for and against.

From the perspective of the House, it was a wave.  Democrats were competitive in dozens of GOP leaning seats, won several Clinton/Republican held seats and at last count will garner 39 seats in total.  This is the third largest haul the party will have made since 1930 in the chamber.  By this definition it is a wave.

From a certain definition the Senate results, despite being +2 for Republicans, was somewhat of a wave for Democrats.  Taking the partisan leans of states into account, almost every Democratic incumbent (win or lose) out-ran their state’s lean.  For example, Joe Manchin won by three points in a state with an R+19 lean, in Missouri, Claire McCaskill lost by six in a state with an R+9 lean and in North Dakota and Indiana the incumbents lost by nine points in R+17 and R+9 states respectively.

But after this the narrative of a wave starts to break down.  Especially in comparison to prior elections.  In recent wave years, say 1994, 2010 and arguably 2014 for Republicans, and the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008, no state was immune.  Republicans gained 54 seats, 63 seats and 14 seats in their waves and Democrats 30 and 21 in theirs.  Also, both parties made gains in Senate seats.  Democratic gains in the House this go-round were less than 40.

Democrats did win some reach seats (see SC-2 and OK-5) but for the most part they failed to capture any reach seats in Indiana, Ohio, North Carolina or Florida.  In a wave election even marginal reach seats swing.  Democrats made significant gains in suburban seats but the broad swathe of seats they did not reach is noticeable.

Wave elections are not just characterized by gains at the federal level but also the state level.  It is true Democrats gained seven Governorships while the GOP won Alaska from an Independent.  The reddest state Democrats captured was Kansas but the unpopularity of the outgoing Governor helped.  Likewise, in the Midwestern states Democrats captured (Wisconsin and Michigan), no Governor of the same party had held that office for three terms since the 1990s.  Again, what is noticeable is where the Democrats failed to make gains; the diversifying states of Texas and Georgia, the rust-belt states of Iowa and Ohio, and the perennial swing state of Florida.

In each state, Democrats again fell short and it is becoming clear short of Georgia these states have a distinctly red tint.  This is new for swing states such as Iowa and Ohio, which have voted for the winner of the Presidential election since 2004.  But both Mike Dewine (OH) and Kim Reynolds (IA) outran the polls by several points.  For the first time since the 90’s, both states will have GOP Governors for two-plus consecutive terms.  Texas was never really a question but the suburban voters who Democrats peeled away the federal level (the party gained two House seats) stuck with incumbent Greg Abbott.

What is perhaps most damaging to the wave narrative is Georgia and Florida.  Democrats brought their voters to the polls but so did Republicans in a way that off-set Democratic voters.  Rural areas were where Republicans saved Georgia’s Brian Kemp while Ron DeSantis won with an interesting coalition of rural voters and Hispanics.  Supposedly DeSantis’s embrace of Trump would turn off Cuban-Americans but he won over 65 percent of their votes.

Locally, Democrats made gains in down-ballot Constitutional offices across the country.  They flipped at last count over 350 legislative seats and six legislatures.  They also broke GOP super-majorities in the North Carolina Senate and House, Georgia Senate and House and Texas Senate.  They gained six legislatures; NY Senate, MN House, ME Senate, NH Senate and House and the Colorado Senate.  Democrats also gained super-majorities in Oregon and California’s legislatures.

Combined with legislative and gubernatorial results Democrats will enter 2019 with full control over 13 states.  Republicans will maintain full control in 22 states.  This contrasts with prior wave elections where Republicans held full control in 20 states in 2011 and Democrats held full control in 16 states.  In other words, at the state level this wave does look more like a ripple.

Nobody can argue Democrats did not have a good night.  But how good a night is the question?  Democrats did not benefit down-ballot in states like Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin (indeed they lost legislative ground in all three states in at least one chamber).  The supposedly rebuilt Blue Wall still looks flimsy.

This is an important consideration when one reads post-election analysis.  The Democratic blue-wall due to wins in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania has been somewhat re-built.  But, in reality, none of these states have seen the same party hold the Governorship for three terms since the 1980’s.  If anything, this election simply reverted these states back to the norm.

If one compares the above results to prior wave elections this election was more of a strong current.  The biggest reason being in past wave elections virtually every competitive statewide race has behaved the same way.  But this time, states behaved different ways.  Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Iowa all broke for Republicans in top of the ticket contests while Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Maine, Nevada and other states behaved differently.  Of course, I only speak of gubernatorial elections because federal statewide races are a different ball of wax.  Just look at how the Senate map this cycle was stacked against Democrats.

But in 2010 and 2014 all the competitive states for statewide constitutional and heck, Senate races broke one way.  Whether November qualifies as a wave or not,  America’s diversifying electorate is breaking along new cleavages making all waves not equal to each other.

Case in point would be Democratic gains in the suburbs which benefits them in Western states like Arizona and Colorado (where the population centers are the states) and bigger states with more suburban House seats.  But in more down-scale and rural states like Ohio, Iowa, and New Hampshire this is a detriment.  In the past, ideological divisions had ensured parties benefit almost uniformly under old alignments.

The election of 2016 has been debated among analysts for whether it is a permanent shift or a one-off election.  This November proved the realignment it caused is here to stay for the next few elections (or at least until Trump leaves office).







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