Wave elections in the United States

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In political science, a wave election is one in which a political party makes major gains. Although there is no precise definition of what constitutes a wave election, the term is used in the United States when one party makes major gains in the House and Senate.[1]

Wave elections in the United States[edit]

Political analyst Charlie Cook describes wave elections as the result of a "overarching, nationwide dynamic," such as a high or low Presidential approval rating, economic conditions, and scandals.[2][3] 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.[2] Although several wave elections may occur in a row, wave elections are usually considered to be the exception rather than the norm.[3] A pick-up of 20 seats in the House has been used as a cut-off point by analysts such as Stuart Rothenberg.[4][5][6] 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.[7]

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.[1] 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.[1][4] 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.[1][3] 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.[1]

A wave election may also be a realigning election, and a wave election could 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.[8] 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.[4]

Since World War II, nine of the fourteen wave elections (as defined in the table below) were midterm elections, with each such election benefiting the party not in the White House. These nine elections constitute half of the eighteen midterm elections held since 1945. In several of the non-wave midterm elections, the president's party did not control Congress but nonetheless lost several seats. Three of the post-World War II wave elections, 1952, 1980, and 2008, coincided with a party taking back the White House from the other party. The remaining two wave elections coincided with Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson winning their respective first full terms. The number of wave elections has waxed and waned in different decades; there was just one wave election in the 1990s, while there were three in the 1950s.

List of wave elections in the United States[edit]

In the following elections, one party gained twenty or more seats in the House, picked up at least one seat in the Senate, and did not lose a Presidential election. Years in which significant gains were realized by both parties due to an increase in the size of the House or Senate are not included.

Incumbent Party Control Election Results
Year President Congress Winning Party House gain Senate gain % of electoral votes
2010 Democratic Democratic Republican 63 6 N/A
2008 Republican Democratic Democratic 21 8 68
2006 Republican Republican Democratic 31 6 N/A
1994 Democratic Democratic Republican 54 8 N/A
1982 Republican Split Democratic 27 1 N/A
1980 Democratic Democratic Republican 34 12 91
1974 Republican Democratic Democratic 49 3 N/A
1966 Democratic Democratic Republican 47 3 N/A
1964 Democratic Democratic Democratic 37 2 90
1958 Republican Democratic Democratic 48 13 N/A
1952 Democratic Democratic Republican 22 2 83
1950 Democratic Democratic Republican 28 5 N/A
1948 Democratic Republican Democratic 75 9 57
1946 Democratic Democratic Republican 54 12 N/A
1942 Democratic Democratic Republican 45 8 N/A
1938 Democratic Democratic Republican 72 7 N/A
1932 Republican Split Democratic 97 12 89
1930 Republican Republican Democratic 52 8 N/A
1928 Republican Republican Republican 32 8 84
1924 Republican Republican Republican 22 4 72
1922 Republican Republican Democratic 77 6 N/A
1920 Democratic Republican Republican 62 10 76
1918 Democratic Democratic[9] Republican 25 5 N/A
1912 Republican Split Democratic 61 5 82
1910 Republican Republican Democratic 57 12 N/A
1904 Republican Republican Republican 41 3 71
1894 Democratic Democratic Republican 111 1 N/A
1890 Republican Republican Democratic 74 2 N/A
1874 Republican Republican Democratic 90 9 N/A
1870 Republican Republican Democratic 32 5 N/A
1866 Independent[10] Republican Republican 40 18 N/A
1864 Republican Republican Republican 46 6 91
1858 Democratic Democratic Republican 22 6 N/A
1856 Democratic Split Democratic 49 2 59
1854 Democratic Democratic Opposition 52 1 NA
1852 Whig Democratic Democratic 28 2 86
1842 Independent[11] Whig Democratic 50 1 N/A
1840 Democratic Democratic Whig 36 6 80
1816 Democratic-Republican Democratic-Republican Democratic-Republican 26 4 83
1802 Democratic-Republican Democratic-Republican Democratic-Republican 35 5 N/A
1800 Federalist Federalist Democratic-Republican 22 5 53
Year President Congress Winning Party House gain Senate gain % of electoral votes
Incumbent Party Control Election Results

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ a b Cook, Charlie (29 July 2013). "Midterm Elections Could Be a Wave, But Who's Going to Drown?". National Journal. Retrieved 20 June 2014.
  3. ^ a b c Cook, Charlie (19 April 2011). "Wave Elections Might Be Washed Up for Now". National Journal. Retrieved 20 June 2014.
  4. ^ a b c Bai, Matt (8 June 2010). "Democrat in Chief?". New York Times. Retrieved 24 June 2014.
  5. ^ Murse, Tom. "What is a Wave Election?". About.com. Retrieved 20 June 2014.
  6. ^ Rothenberg, Stuart (3 February 2011). "Are We Headed for Four Wave Elections in a Row?". Rothenberg Report. Retrieved 20 June 2014.
  7. ^ Hopkins, Dan (9 September 2010). "Waves are for Surfing". Monkey Cage. Retrieved 23 June 2014.
  8. ^ Murse, Tim. "5 Biggest Wave Elections". About.com. Retrieved 20 June 2014.
  9. ^ In the 65th Congress, Democratic Speaker of the House Champ Clark presided over a coalition of Democrats and two minor parties. Democrats had a majority in the Senate.
  10. ^ President Andrew Johnson was elected Vice President on the National Union ticket, and took office after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Johnson, who had been a Democratic Senator before the Civil War, clashed with the Republican Congress and briefly attempted to form his own party.
  11. ^ President John Tyler was elected as a Whig, but was expelled from the party after disagreements with Congressional Whigs.

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