The Political Psychology of Wave Elections

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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.

Causes

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.
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