History Lessons and the 2014 Midterms

by Stuart Rothenberg May 6, 2013 · 9:18 AM EDT

Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics.com joins the growing chorus of political handicappers who have been arguing that we aren’t likely to see a partisan wave next cycle. Trende’s analysis, which also addresses the “six-year itch,” is spot on (as it usually is).

There is no evidence right now that Republicans are headed for large gains in 2014, and midterm House waves for the president’s party are not merely rare. There has never been one in the modern era (describe that however you’d like).

No, that doesn’t mean that there won’t ever be a midterm wave for the president’s party, but given the number of cases — there have been 17 midterm elections since the end of World War II and 28 midterm elections since the beginning of the 20th century — it’s very reasonable to start off with the premise that the president’s party won’t benefit from a midterm wave in 2014.

If events and polls show something different happening, then assessments can change.

Trende notes that David Nir of Daily Kos has “jokingly” referred to the “tendency of commentators to succumb to the ‘anything that hasn’t happened before can’t happen now’ rule.”

But it’s equally silly to ignore the fact that something hasn’t happened for a century or to assume that something that has never happened is likely to happen now — unless, of course, specific factors have changed to suddenly make an unlikely outcome quite possible (such as changing racial attitudes and the possibility of electing an African-American to the White House).

Trende goes on to observe that in 2010, “prognosticators seemed bent on making sure they were as close to the actual number as they could be without going over it. Almost everyone’s prediction was on the low end of what really happened. I’m convinced this was, in part, because we didn’t have any recent examples of a party losing more than 55 seats in a midterm (it’s not accidental that predictions steadily climbed upwards in 2010 until they struck this level, then stayed there until the very end).”

I think he’s generally right about this. It’s difficult to expect that something that has never happened will happen for the first time.

But as Trende notes, not everyone’s final estimate for 2010 was below “historic” levels.

The October 28, 2010, edition of the Rothenberg Political Report included the following: “House Democrats appear to be headed for a historic bloodbath, with losses probably exceeding 1994’s 52 seats. We estimate likely GOP House gains at 55 to 65 seats, with gains at or above 70 seats possible.” Republicans won a historic 63 seats that year.