WASHINGTON — As the final 2018 election results trickle in, analysts and social media commentators have turned their attention to assessing the damage. Namely, was 2018 a “wave” election or not.
Both sides of the “wave or no wave” debate have dug into their positions and both have some data to use as ammunition.
For the “of course, it was a big blue wave” team, the strongest bit of evidence may be the sheer number of House seats the Democrats won.
On Nov. 6, the Democrats captured 41 House seats they didn’t hold in the current Congress and they lost only 3 seats to Republicans, for a net swing of 38. And that’s “at least” 38 seats. There are still two undecided House races both in districts currently held by Republicans, so the number could climb as high as 40.
Historically speaking, those are pretty big numbers. Since 1980 there have only been two midterms that saw a net swing in seats larger than 38 — 2010, when the GOP netted 63 seats, and 1994, when the Republicans gained 52.
The last time the Democrats gained this many seats in a midterm was 1974, the post-Watergate election. So, yes, that’s a point for Team Wave.
And beyond the number of seats won, pro-wavers cite the Democratic advantage in the national House popular vote — that is all the Democratic and all the Republican votes cast in every House race added up.
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When all the ballots are tallied, Democrats will have something close to a 9 million vote lead in the national House popular vote. Democrats will win the vote by close to 8 percentage points.
That’s a huge win. In the Republican wave elections of 2010 and 1994, the GOP won the national House vote by about 6.6 points and 7 points respectively, according to our friends at the Cook Political Report. In the Democrats’ smaller wave win in 2006, they captured the national House vote by about 6.4 points.
Add that all up and 2018 certainly feels wave-like.
But anti-wavers have their own sets of data to point to and their number-counting starts in the Senate. In the upper chamber of Congress, the Republicans didn’t just hold their own, they netted two seats — with the Senate race in Mississippi headed to a run-off.
The GOP won Democrat-held Senate seats in North Dakota, Missouri, Florida and Indiana, while losing seats in Arizona and Nevada. If Republicans win in Mississippi, their edge in the Senate will go from 51-49 in the current Congress (with two independent senators who caucus with the Democrats) to 53-47 in January.
And even if they lose in that run-off, they Republicans would grow their Senate advantage by one seat. That sure doesn’t look like a blue wave. In the last few wave elections, the party that captured big wins in the House also picked up seats in the Senate. The last midterm that saw different parties making gains in the House and Senate was in 1982.
Republicans can also point to some big wins in marquee races this year and some larger-than-expected margins in races that were thought to be close.
The perennial battleground of Florida didn’t seem to follow wave narrative. The Democrats came up just short — within 1 percentage point — in two statewide races that they very much wanted to win, for Senate and for governor. And the gubernatorial candidate, Andrew Gillum, was seen as a potential rising star for the Democrats.
In Georgia, Democrats were very excited about gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, but she too just missed, by less than 2 percentage points.
Those races were all seen as toss-ups and all broke the opposite way of the 2018 House wave.
And in the Indiana and Missouri Senate races, where Democrats hoped their incumbents could eke out narrow wins in tossup races, the sitting Senators lost by good-sized margins, each by 6 points.
Those are some pretty good arguments against 2018 as a wave. Waves tend to push close races into the column of the party that is having a good night. And it didn’t happen this year.
But one larger point in all these numbers may be that the great wave/no wave dispute isn’t really very important. It’s a battle over nomenclature, not reality.
The reality of 2018 is the Democrats took back the House with big gains and picked up some governor’s mansions in key states. At the same time, the Democrats didn’t win all the governor races they wanted and GOP grew its edge in the Senate.
One other point to consider, wave or no wave, it’s not really clear what 2018 means for 2020.
In 2010, the GOP saw huge gains in a massive wave, netting 63 House and six Senate seats. Two years later, President Barack Obama was reelected comfortably by 4 percentage points and more than 100 electoral votes.
In that election, Democrats netted eight seats in the House and two in the Senate. That’s hardly a wave, but the Democrats didn’t really mind.