Politics & Policy

How the Wave Happened

Iowa’s senator-elect Joni Ernst celebrates her win in Des Moines Tuesday night. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)
Democrats tried to run against Congress, but it didn’t work.

As of just after midnight Tuesday night, Republicans had already gained a net seven Senate seats and control of the chamber, with Virginia likely going to a recount, Alaska pending, and a probable runoff win in Louisiana. Already it seems that they’ve gained at least a net of twelve House seats.

Back in May, we felt there could be a Midterm Tsunami. In August we again speculated about it. But how did Republicans pull it off?

Our last national poll, in October, showed that the president had significant disapproval – 56 percent of Americans disapproving of the job he’s doing — which had the potential to drive the election to the Republicans.

Although the Republicans led the generic ballot for Congress at the time by a point, 42–41, among very likely voters it was 46–41, and the undecideds for Congress disapproved of the president by 64 percent. In the last two weeks of October, it appears, these voters nationalized the race, and we finally saw the tsunami.

In the national exit polls from this election day, the president’s disapproval was similar to our poll — approve 44 percent, disapprove 54 percent.

Among the 44 percent who approved of the job the president was doing, Democrats led 88–11. But among the 54 percent who disapproved of the job the president was doing, Republicans led 82–16. The Republican strategy to nationalize congressional races worked.

What didn’t work? The president’s and Democrats’ strategy to run against Congress. Clearly Congress is less popular than the White House: Only 20 percent in exit polls approved of the job that Congress was doing, and 78 percent disapproved.

But those who disapproved of Congress voted Republican 51–47, while those who approved of Congress voted Democratic 54–45. The Democrats, in other words, got saddled with the bad job people thought Congress was doing, in addition to the president’s poor performances.

The emergence of immigration and foreign policy as top issues also helped form the Tsunami. Economic issues were the top issue for almost half the voters (45 percent of the electorate). Those voters split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, 49–49. Next was health care, at 25 percent of voters, who favored the Democrats 60–38. Following that was immigration, at 14 percent, voters who went Republican 73–25. Finally, 13 percent cited foreign policy as their top issue, and they preferred Republicans 55–43.

The Tsunami of events and Democratic failure have washed the Republicans into office. Now they have to clean up the mess.

— John McLaughlin is a Republican strategist and a partner in the national polling firm McLaughlin & Associates.

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