You can feel it in the air and see it in the polls: a wave election looks likely—one that could sweep dozens of Democrats into the House of Representatives and hand them the majority. It’s an exciting prospect for Democrats and a dreadful one for Republicans. Here’s a taste of what political psychology has to say about waves.
Four of the past six congressional elections have been waves, a noticeable uptick in their frequency. The last wave before 2006 was in 1994, and in recent decades waves have been relatively infrequent.
Conventional wisdom holds that rising partisanship, especially negative partisanship, is to blame for the newly wave-prone electorate. Midterms tend to be referenda on the president. Angry voters from the opposite party are highly motivated to turn out, while the president’s own supporters get complacent.
That’s unquestionably part of what’s going on, but there may be a generational dimension to the story as well. I’ve argued before that the generational makeup of the House is linked to all kinds of big-picture political phenomena, and there’s reason to believe that Baby Boomers might be making the waves.
If you look at the history of congressional elections, our nation seems to go through long cycles where waves become either more or less frequent. Wave elections were much more common in the 34 years from 1840 to 1874 as well as from 1918 to 1952. We seem to have entered another wave-prone era in 2006 that, if the pattern holds, could last until 2040.
At first glance, the connection between these dates isn’t obvious. But in each case, the waves picked up precisely when idealist generation numbers in the House peaked and crested: the Transcendental Generation in 1840, the Missionary Generation in 1918 and the Baby Boomers in 2006.
Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of the first two generations. What matters is that all three of these idealist generations are known for their polarizing, self-righteous and self-serving leadership.
Perhaps the timing is just a coincidence, or perhaps there’s something about this style of leadership that makes voters more eager to throw the bums out en masse.
Opportunities and Risks
Whether they’re rare or common, wave elections seldom come out of the blue. Usually, there’s polling to suggest one may be coming, even if it isn’t a sure thing. That affects both candidate and voter perceptions of risk.
Anyone familiar with Prospect Theory knows that a loss of $100 feels worse than a gain of $100 feels good. The result is that people tend to play it safe when they’re ahead and take bigger risks when they’re behind.
The risk for both leaders and voters on the winning side of a wave is overconfidence and complacency. If you’re a candidate, why go out on a limb if you’re ahead? This problem is particularly acute for many Democratic leaders, who already are temperamentally cautious.
And if you’re a voter siding with the likely winners, particularly an infrequent one or one who faces practical or legal barriers to voting, why go to the trouble of voting when the outcome appears certain?
It’s up to candidates to set the tone by taking nothing for granted, running like they’re behind and seizing the opportunities that wave elections offer.
The best way to boost turnout in a wave is with a classic psychological influence technique: social proof, the principle that people look to other people for cues about how to behave. A potentially high turnout wave election lends itself to a simple, compelling and proven GOTV message: everyone else is voting and you should too.
The danger for those on the losing side of a potential wave is reckless risk-taking, especially the kind motivated by a sense of urgency in the face of potentially debilitating losses.
Consider as a potential example of this the GOP’s decision to plow forward with Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court after credible accusations of assault surfaced. Many Republican politicians, pundits, and strategists pointed to expected election losses and uncertainties as justification for confirming Kavanaugh regardless.
History will be the judge of whether this risk, from the Republican Party’s point of view, ultimately was worth it. But subsequent polls have made clear that in the short-term, it’s Democrats who are benefitting.
Sometimes risks taken in the face of losses work out. But at least as often, they just dig a deeper grave for the losing side.
The most widely expected outcome of the 2018 midterms is that Democrats will win big in the House and Republicans will hang on to the Senate with a net loss or gain of only one or two seats.
The closest historical analogue to such a scenario is the 1982 midterms. Back then, Democrats picked up 26 House seats and Republicans gained one seat in the Senate.
The key difference is that Democrats went into the 1982 midterms with an already-formidable majority in the House, something Democrats might have enjoyed in the present era were it not for extreme gerrymandering, vote suppression, laissez-faire campaign finance laws, and intervention from Moscow tipping the scales overwhelmingly in favor of Republicans. But that’s another story.
Some political scientists have estimated that Democrats may need to win the congressional popular vote by as much as 11 points to retake the House. That’s an extremely high bar, even in a wave election, and a recipe for a dangerous crisis of legitimacy.
If a wave materializes at the ballot box, but not in the halls of power, can anyone plausibly call the political system that produced this situation representative?
Before you answer, take a moment to reflect on this self-evident truth: There’s nothing more American than a fight for representation.
David L. Rosen is the founder of First Person Politics, a consultancy focusing on the strategic applications of political psychology. Follow him on Twitter @firstpersonpol.