Should we retire the ‘wave' election moniker?
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Will a “blue wave” in the 2018 mid-terms return Democrats to a position of policymaking relevance, or will the Republican’s structural advantages granted by re-apportionment act as an effective seawall to keep the Republican majority in our legislative bodies?  With less than a month remaining, no question seems more important or more disputed.

Recent surveys acknowledge enthusiasm among President Trump’s opponents, and contested special elections held since 2016 had large, double-digit swings in votes cast for Democratic candidates. 

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But Democratic enthusiasm is only part of the equation. Republicans have numerous political advantages that may keep them from being swamped. One purported advantage for Senate Republicans is the political character of the 23 states they are defending. A related advantage for House Republicans is that most congressional districts are represented by politicians who match their district’s political profile.  Incumbency and control over re-apportionment, perhaps better described as malapportionment, are the bedrock of these advantages.  

High levels of voter enthusiasm and interest, which these days usually translates to anger and resentment, undoubtedly create the conditions for wave elections. But is it possible to have a “wave” election that produces no political change?  

As a typically reliable barometer for national trends, the mid-term races in Pennsylvania show us both the potential for a wave election and the chances for barriers imposed by geographic seawalls to remain stalwart. 

Think for a moment about Trump’s stunning 2016 electoral victory. Candidate Trump won 56 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties with a 29-point advantage, compared to the 24-point margin that Candidate Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders holds four-point lead on Biden in new California poll Gabbard knocks Clinton's jab at Sanders: 'This isn't high school' Hill.TV's Krystal Ball rips op-ed comparing Sanders supporters to those of Trump MORE held in the 11 counties she won. The huge advantage in votes cast in those 56 counties is the reason he carried Pennsylvania. 

For Republican candidates to be successful, they will need to match Trump’s advantage in the counties he won or follow a more traditional Republican game plan for the state. The Republican statewide candidates for governor and U.S. Senate, Scott Wagner and Rep. Lou BarlettaLouis (Lou) James BarlettaEx-GOP congressman to lead group to protect Italian products from tariffs Head of Pennsylvania GOP resigns over alleged explicit texts Trump's most memorable insults and nicknames of 2018 MORE, have embraced Trumpism and are relying on the Trump playbook. 

So far, doubling-down on Trumpism is a bust. Polls show that Wagner and Barletta are trailing their incumbent Democratic opponents, Gov. Tom Wolf and Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseySenate Democrats launch investigation into Trump tax law regulations Advocates call for ObamaCare open enrollment extension after website glitches The US needs to lead again on disability rights MORE, by double digits. Pennsylvania has long been considered a swing state, so it’s unsurprising that an unpopular president would be an anchor weighing down his party’s candidates, as the wave metaphor suggests.

The Democratic candidates’ advantages in Clinton counties are in the area of 40 points, while the Republican candidates’ advantages in Trump counties are in the low single digits. These large differences may represent a real gap in voter motivation, as more voters in Clinton counties say they are very interested and very likely to vote in the upcoming elections.

But while this is a key component in statewide races, congressional districts are less susceptible to a wave. As with the statewide candidates, Democrats have a roughly 40-point advantage on the generic ballot in Clinton counties, while Republicans are preferred in the Trump counties by a less eye-popping, but still relatively comfortable low double-digit margin.

As a result, most congressional districts in the state will not be particularly competitive. Only four of the state’s 18 districts have a five-point or smaller difference in the proportions of registered Democrats and Republicans, even after the state’s court-ordered redistricting took effect. All of these districts are held by Republicans—one race is a toss-up, one is likely to flip, and two are expected to stay in the Republican column. Democrats may gain three or four seats in the state outside of these four, primarily because of newly drawn districts with no incumbent, but a real wave should overwhelm the Republicans in these four seats, too.

The “wave” election metaphor implies overwhelming voter movement away from the party in power and a radical course correction in policy, but is this metaphor too simplistic, or even misleading, in a time of partisan tribalism? 

If this election year produces little or no change in Washington because of polarization’s impermeable structure, it may be time to retire the “wave” election analogy. Instead, it seems the unstoppable force of a blue wave may meet the immovable object of red institutional advantages. 

In any event, the politics and geography of partisanship and polarization mean most states and congressional districts are far from any shoreline and may not feel even a slight ripple.

Berwood A. Yost is the chief methodologist and co-director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll. byost@fandm.edu