The Slatest

This Is Not Quite What a Wave Election Looks Like

The Capitol afloat upon the crest of a blue wave
Now thats a blue wave.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by JNEphotos/iStock/Getty Images Plus and U.S. Government/aoc.gov.

After a few unexpected twists and plenty of expected turns, the 2018 midterms ultimately delivered the outcome that most of the major nonpartisan handicappers and number-crunching forecasters had predicted: Democrats retook the House, while Republicans held onto the Senate.

The split decision, however, prompted a natural question—and sparked a predictable debate—after a year’s worth of ocean-themed punditry: Did we just witness a blue wave?

There is no definitive answer because there is no clear-cut question. There is simply no agreed-upon definition of what, exactly, constitutes a wave election in the first place. The term is typically used to describe an election when one party posts major gains nationally, but the lines are blurry. It’s shorthand, not science.

But with that caveat I can say this: If this was indeed a wave, it didn’t look much different from what typically washes ashore during the midterms amid a “normal” presidency.

There are still votes to be counted and races to be called, so for now we can only compare projected oranges with historical apples. But according to the New York Times’ count, as of 10 a.m., Democrats had picked up 26 seats in the House and were on pace to pick up another 10, which would leave them plus-36. The GOP, meanwhile, has picked up two seats in the Senate with an outside chance of picking up another two to reach plus-four in the upper chamber.

Expectation-fueled disappointment aside, it was still a great night for Democrats, who beginning next year will control the House, giving them real, tangible power in Washington for the first time during Trump’s presidency. And it’s no doubt true that Democrats would have had an even better night if it weren’t for the historically horrendous Senate calendar and the gerrymandered House map they faced.

But those top-line results still very much reflect the midterm status quo. Remember, the party that controls the presidency has lost congressional seats in 35 out of the 38 midterms dating back to the end of the Civil War. And according to the Cook Political Report’s count, there have been seven midterm elections since 1966 in which a president’s approval rating was below 50 percent—as Trump’s remains mired—and in those, the opposing party picked up at least two dozen House seats on all but one occasion. (The exception was in 2014 in the middle of Barack Obama’s second term, when Democrats didn’t have many left to lose after getting shellacked in the 2010 midterms.)

Democrats can and should point to the fact that they appear to have won the national congressional vote by a considerable margin—about 7 points, if the Times’ current projections hold. But even if that number sticks, it won’t represent the scathing rebuke of Trump it might seem to, since it falls between the GOP margin of victory in Obama’s two midterms: 7.2 percent in 2010 and 5.7 percent in 2014, according to numbers shared by Princeton Election Consortium’s Sam Wang. It’s also about 1 full point below the Democrats’ 8-point margin in the 2006 midterms.

What’s more, consider there is the pesky Senate to contend with. The historical pattern isn’t quite as clear there, since only a third of its seats are up every two years, but it’s still pretty strong: The party that controls the White House has lost seats in 19 out of 26 elections since direct election of senators began in 1913. In both 2006 and 2010, two years that widely get the wave label, the opposition party picked up six seats, compared with this year’s loss of two to four. Given where the Senate races were happening this cycle, Democrats did well to limit their losses. But it’s difficult to square that with the notion that they just swept to power.

The debate about whether there was a blue wave, then, seems to be losing sight of the historical tides.