Opinion

What Constitutes a Wave Election?

With half of independents still up for grabs, a blue wave is not a foregone conclusion

Democrats may be predicting a blue wave, but surveys show many independents are still up for grabs and Republicans could yet win that battle of ideas, Winston writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — Is 2018 going to be a wave election? The better question is: “What constitutes a wave election?”

In a CNN interview last week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told Christiane Amanpour, “People ask me, is this a tsunami or is it wave? And I said, in neither case, it’s many drops of water and it’s all very close. So it won’t be a big margin, it will be small margins in many races that will produce the victory.”

Clearly, Democrats are confident they are about to sweep to victory in the House and some now going as far as saying the Senate is in play. Trying to handicap the chances of a “blue wave” is a hot topic made even more difficult with poll numbers all over the place and what appears to be a volatile electorate.

So before jumping on the blue-wave or red-wave bandwagon, some historical perspective may be in order if for no other reason than to test some of the assumptions in play.

Despite district and state polls showing tight races, most Democrats and media pundits seem to base their optimism on the notion that winning a wave election is all about the base and just how enthusiastic Democratic true believers are this year. It’s not. And it’s not about the base for Republicans either.

It’s all about independents and how they break.

A tale of two elections

Sure, the base matters. But a party can turn out exactly the same percentage of its base in two different elections, win one and lose the other. In 1994, an off-year election, exit polls showed Republicans made up 36 percent of the electorate and won their base vote 91 percent to 8 percent. That year, they won the congressional vote 52 percent to 45 percent and the majority in the House for the first time in 40 years.

Now, fast forward to 2006. Republicans, according to exit polls, again made up 36 percent of the turnout and also won their base by the same margin, 91 percent to 8 percent. So, according to the logic in play today, Republicans should have won the House but that’s not what happened.

Instead, Republicans gave up 31 seats and the majority. What made the difference? In a word: independents.

In 1994, Republicans won independent voters by 14 points. In 2006, they lost them by 18 points. The base turned out. Their percentage of the electorate was the same, but it didn’t matter because enough independents not only turned out but turned on Republicans, or at least enough them to flip the House.

Four years later, it was a different story. In 2010, Republicans retook the House majority, winning independent voters by 19 points and taking back 63 seats. That margin among independents was large enough to overcome the fact that Republicans actually made up a smaller part of the electorate in 2010 — only 35 percent, which was down a point from the previous midterms in 2006.

Clearly, neither party’s base is enough to create a wave; independents will be the deciding factor this fall, as they have been so many times in the past. The question is which party is effectively engaging these increasingly volatile voters, and what is driving their vote this time around?

At the moment, one out of four voters overall (24 percent) has an unfavorable view of both congressional Republicans and Democrats. But that percentage is significantly higher (41 percent) among independents, which may lead to some late decision-making in November.

In 2016, we saw a similar dynamic when 18 percent of the country had an unfavorable view of both Trump and Clinton, eventually breaking for Trump 47 percent to 30 percent. Largely due to those unfavorable views of both candidates, a quarter of the electorate actually waited to make their decision until October.

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Not a sure thing

So where are the parties today with independents? Up in the air. In a recent Winning the Issues survey, 34 percent were undecided and 15 percent were leaning in one direction, meaning almost half of independents are still up for grabs. With their unfavorable views of both parties, a large percentage of independents — the wave-makers of this election — may not finalize their choice until late in the game. So it’s on each party to make a compelling case for their records and for their agenda, one that connects with all voters, but especially independents.

Republicans, led by John Boehner, effectively made their case to voters in 2010 when they asked, “Where are the jobs?” Dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama had created favorable conditions for regaining the majority, but they couldn’t rely on that alone. They had to define the choice in that election, and they did.

Right now, I don’t see a similar effort among Democrats to move independents, as evidenced by the 34 percent still undecided. That’s not to say it couldn’t happen, but it hasn’t materialized yet. Many Democrats recognize the need to offer voters more than just opposition to Trump, but their focus is almost entirely on him. It will take much more than anti-Trump rhetoric and calls for impeachment for independents to break heavily for Democrats in the double digits needed for a wave.

In testing what issues matter most to independents in their vote for Congress on a scale of 1 to 9, our recent Winning the Issues survey found the economy and jobs scoring the highest at 6.61, followed by foreign policy/terror (6.35) and cost of living (6.29). At the bottom were Trump’s ties to Russia (4.61), abolishing ICE (4.49), and stories about Manafort and Cohen (4.34). Yet, these are the issues Democrats spend most of their time talking about.

In a May survey for Winning the Issues, we asked voters whether their decision this November would be based primarily on President Donald Trump’s record and policies; or whether it would also be about the agendas Republicans and Democrats offer in addition to his record.

An overwhelming 62 percent of independents said their decision would be based on what the two parties put forward, with Trump’s record and policies playing a significant role. Only 13 percent said it would be solely about Trump’s record and policies.

Could there be a blue wave 48 days from now? Sure, but it all depends on how independents break. The Kavanaugh confirmation, the outcome of the budget deal, the impact of the Trump tariffs and probably something we can’t even predict right now will all affect the outcome. But in the end, the choice for independents will depend on which party wins the battle of ideas, if offered.

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