Wave Elections

Wave elections refer to elections that dramatically shift the balance of political power. These “waves” are often seen at both the national and state level – in both in Washington and throughout the country. They most often occur during midterm elections, which refer to Congressional elections held two years after a Presidential election. Wave elections are often referendums on the President or the party in power in Congress. The 2006 and 2010 midterm elections are good examples of wave elections.

The 2006 midterm election

The 2006 midterm election was a wave election that occurred 6 years into President Bush’s time as President. Democrats took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 12 years. Republican President George W. Bush’s popularity was waning due in large part to the unpopularity of the war in Iraq.  It is extremely common for the President’s party to lose seats in Congress halfway through a President’s second term. This phenomenon is sometimes called the “Six-Year Itch.”

The 2010 midterm election

The 2010 midterm election was a wave election that saw huge gains for the Republican party in the House of Representatives, the Senate, and in the states. President Obama had been in office for less than two years, and the economy had still not totally rebounded from the 2007 recession. Most Republicans ran on their opposition to the unpopular Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which had just passed in the Democrat House and Senate. The House of Representatives switched from Democrat to Republican control, and Republicans picked up 680 seats in state legislatures across the country.

Wave elections are important because they signal a shift in American political or issue preference. The national, state, and local officials elected impact the lives of their constituents for years to come – even though low turnout in most midterm elections means that far fewer people vote in the average midterm election than in the Presidential election. Why do you think that wave elections usually occur during midterm elections? And why do you think fewer people vote in these midterm elections?