Too Early to Know Whether Democrats Will Fall Prey to Second-Term Jinx

This early in the 2014 congressional midterm-election cycle, it’s impossible to know what the election will be about—whether there will be a wind in favor of either party and, if so, what the velocity and impact will be. Recently, we have had three back-to-back wave elections, with 2006 and 2008 in favor of Democrats and 2010 benefiting Republicans. While 2012 cannot really be considered a wave, the election did display certain dynamics that benefited Democrats—at least in national races, although not in gubernatorial ones.

It’s important to remember that wave elections are not the norm—they are actually the exception to the rule. The adage by the late Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill that “all politics is local” would more accurately be “all politics is local, except when it is not.” In the 1980 elections, Ronald Reagan unseated President Carter by a 10 percentage-point margin, and Republicans gained 12 seats in the Senate and 34 in the House; this was the first wave election our country had seen since the 1974 Watergate upheaval. The next true wave election after 1980 was in 1994, during the Newt Gingrich-led Republican takeover of the House, which resulted in a 52-seat gain, accompanied by a strong eight-seat gain in the Senate. (Note: Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama switched from the Democratic to the GOP the day after the election, bringing the total Republican gain to nine.) After 1994, there was not another wave for 12 years. Then we saw three consecutive wave elections: 2006, 2008, and the reverse wave in 2010, when Republicans were the beneficiaries and Democrats were the victims.

The safer way to look at congressional elections is to start off assuming that any election will be a normal “all politics is local” situation, while constantly looking closely for signs that it might not be. Keep an eye out for the chance that it turns out to be a wave year, rather than a relatively level battlefield.

Another thing to remember is that just because it’s a “normal” election doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a calm one. In any election following a surge or wave election—two years later in the House or six years later in the Senate—there can be a decline or a corrective election, wherein the party that benefited from the wave in the previous election loses some or all of its gains in the next cycle. This can occur not necessarily because there are strong countervailing dynamics against the winning party as much as because certain seats gained in a wave election can’t be held in another election where that party isn’t enjoying the strong, beneficial dynamics of the previous election. In a wave election, many extremely strong, bright, and talented candidates win along with some fairly strong, reasonably intelligent, and somewhat talented candidates. Often, some of the candidates who win in these cycles aren’t that good—they just had the good fortune of running in a terrific year for their party. These candidates woke up on a Wednesday morning and discovered that they had just been elected to Congress, whether they were deserving of it or not. These seats are the ones that are often the first to go in an adverse or even normal election year. The Democratic gains in 1986 serve as a pretty good example of this. While the second-term Reagan White House was dealing with the Iran-Contra scandal—which no doubt sapped some of its strength—the GOP saw losses in the Senate. This can be interpreted as a rebound from some “exotic” candidates who won on Reagan’s coattails in 1980 but weren’t sufficiently strong to win on their own six years later.

The temptation at this point in an election cycle is to assume that the dynamics that were in place in the last election will just carry forward into the next one. We assume we’ll see the political equivalent of generals who fought in the last war returning for the next one. Occasionally, a party has two or more favorable elections in a row, such as the 1932-34-36 trifecta for Democrats; the years 1974-76 for Democrats; and, of course, 2006-2008 for the Democrats. But that’s three times in the last 40 years—not that frequent of a pattern to depend on.

Coming out of the 2012 elections, the Republican Party is clearly facing some challenges. Some problems are demographic, specifically the damage to its brand among many minority, female, and younger voters. Others are more ideological: To many voters in the middle, the rhetoric and positioning of the GOP in the past few years has been much more off-putting to these nonideological individuals than that of Democrats. It’s important to note that at other times, the shoe is still on the other foot, and Democrats are the offending party to those middle-of-the-road voters.

Finally, Republicans have fallen behind when it comes to campaign technology. They have gone from a state-of-the-art operation in 2004, with the George W. Bush reelection effort led by Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman, to now appearing to be, on a multitude of levels, one, two, or three steps behind their Democratic foes. How long it will take the Republicans to catch up remains to be seen, but campaign-technology experts point out that given the rapid pace of technological change, any advantage by one party is only a temporary edge built on sand. It is not that hard for the other party to catch up or leapfrog ahead.

Historically, we have seen unfortunate political patterns appear during second presidential terms. The party occupying the Oval Office has suffered significant House and/or Senate losses in five of the last six second-term, midterm elections. Since World War II, the party holding the White House for two consecutive terms has also lost it in five out of the six subsequent elections. Will the dominant dynamic be a continuation of earlier problems for the GOP, or will the historical pattern of the second-term jinx hold?