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Wave elections in the United States

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Wave elections in the United States are elections in which a political party makes major gains. Based on the "red states and blue states" color coding convention in use since 2000, wave elections have often been described as either "blue waves" or "red waves" depending on which party makes significant gains, referring to a major increase in seats held by either the Democratic Party (associated with blue) in the former, or the Republican Party (associated with red) in the latter.

Wave elections usually happen during midterm elections.[1] There is no consensus definition of what level of gains is necessary to constitute a wave election,[2][3][4] but the most recent election year widely described as a wave election was 2018's blue wave, where the Democratic Party regained control of the House of Representatives and made a net gain of 7 seats in gubernatorial elections.[5][6]



Political analyst Charlie Cook describes wave elections as the result of an "overarching, nationwide dynamic," such as a high or low presidential approval rating, economic conditions, and scandals.[7][8] Cook contrasts wave elections with "micro-elections" in which neither party makes significant gains, and candidates, local issues, and other factors not strictly related to party alignment have a stronger role than in wave elections.[7] Although several wave elections may occur in a row, wave elections are usually considered to be the exception rather than the norm.[8] A pick-up of 20 seats in the United States House of Representatives has been used as a cut-off point by analysts such as Stuart Rothenberg.[9][10][11] However, political scientist Dan Hopkins has argued that the term has little utility in understanding elections and that there is no clear cut-off point between a wave election and other elections.[12]

Congressional incumbents in the United States enjoy an electoral advantage over challengers, but a wave election often boosts challengers, resulting in many more incumbents losing than usual during wave elections.[2] A wave election can put into play seats that would otherwise be considered safe for the party holding the seat, and help even flawed challengers defeat incumbents.[2][9] Since at least 1954, wave elections have always benefited one party at the expense of the other, but the term has also been used to describe a hypothetical scenario in which numerous incumbents from both parties lose their seats.[2][8] The first election after redistricting is often a wave election, since many incumbents are less firmly rooted in their districts following redistricting, and many other incumbents retire or suffer primary defeats.[2]

A wave election may also be concurrent with a landslide election, a term which usually refers to decisive victories in presidential contests. Many wave elections occur during midterm elections, with the party out of power picking up seats.[1] A common pattern involves a party with a victorious presidential candidate benefiting from a wave election, followed by the opposing party winning a wave election in the next midterm election.[9] Such occurred in 2008, with the election of Barack Obama as President, followed by the Republican wave of 2010.

See also



  1. ^ a b Murse, Tim. "5 Biggest Wave Elections". About.com. Archived from the original on 6 April 2014. Retrieved 20 June 2014.
  2. ^ a b c d e Abramowitz, Alan (22 December 2011). "The Anti-Incumbent Election Myth". University of Virginia Center for Politics. Retrieved 23 June 2014.
  3. ^ "Wave elections (1918-2016)/Full report". Ballotpedia. Retrieved 2019-01-15.
  4. ^ Green, Matthew (2018). "Was it a 'blue wave' or not? That depends on how you define a 'wave.'". The Washington Post.
  5. ^ Enten, Harry (2018-12-06). "Latest House results confirm 2018 wasn't a blue wave. It was a blue tsunami. | CNN Politics". CNN. Retrieved 2021-06-25.
  6. ^ "Analysis | Democrats pinned their hopes on a 'blue wave' in the midterms. Is that what happened?". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2021-06-25.
  7. ^ a b Cook, Charlie (29 July 2013). "Midterm Elections Could Be a Wave, But Who's Going to Drown?". National Journal. Archived from the original on 1 August 2013. Retrieved 20 June 2014.
  8. ^ a b c Cook, Charlie (19 April 2011). "Wave Elections Might Be Washed Up for Now". National Journal. Archived from the original on 21 April 2011. Retrieved 20 June 2014.
  9. ^ a b c Bai, Matt (8 June 2010). "Democrat in Chief?". New York Times. Retrieved 24 June 2014.
  10. ^ Murse, Tom. "What is a Wave Election?". About.com. Archived from the original on 13 July 2014. Retrieved 20 June 2014.
  11. ^ Rothenberg, Stuart (3 February 2011). "Are We Headed for Four Wave Elections in a Row?". Rothenberg Report. Archived from the original on 9 February 2011. Retrieved 20 June 2014.
  12. ^ Hopkins, Dan (9 September 2010). "Waves are for Surfing". Monkey Cage. Archived from the original on 7 January 2023. Retrieved 23 June 2014.