A Break From 'Wave' Elections?

After voters reacted drastically in the last three national contests, odds are against another major shift in 2012 -- unless volatility is the new norm

Electoral college map - Bogdan Cristel Reuters - banner.jpg

The problem with having three consecutive "wave" elections is that people tend to think that these aberrational elections are the norm.

In 2006, the Iraq War was at its lowest point, President George W. Bush's Gallup job approval rating was 38 percent going into Election Day, and a series of congressional scandals buffeted the Republican Party, causing it to lose six Senate seats, 30 House seats and their majorities in both chambers.

Two years later, the financial crisis and a recession replaced Iraq as voters' top concern, Bush's Gallup approval ratings were down to 25 percent, and Republicans got hammered again, this time losing eight Senate and 21 House seats, dropping further into minority status in both chambers.

Last fall, Americans were unimpressed with President Obama's economic stimulus package and reacted badly to both the cap-and-trade climate change proposal and the health care law. Obama's Gallup approval rating went down to 45 percent, and Democrats lost six Senate seats and 63 House seats, costing them their majority in the lower chamber.

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Each of these elections showed strong reactions by voters, specifically independent voters, and in no way resembled the previous five elections from 1996-2004. Wave elections are the exception. While something has made them occur more frequently lately, it still doesn't make them normal.

We could have a fourth consecutive wave election in 2012, but the odds are against it. But here is another theory building on the premise that the "new norm" is volatility, particularly among independent voters. After having vented at each of the two parties individually, what if voters decide to take out incumbents in a "pox on both your houses" election?

To be honest, I have always been dismissive of the notion of a truly bipartisan, anti-incumbent year, not that there haven't been years when incumbents deserved to be thrown out. We have come to expect that when we predict that a certain party will get destroyed in an election, their consultants and party officials will try to sell the argument that incumbents on both sides, not just theirs, will get hurt. It's never right, but nothing says it never will be.

There are several scenarios that could lead to a bad night for incumbents. For instance, it's not hard to imagine this happening if political turbulence and instability in the Mideast and North Africa continues through November 2012 while at the same time the booming economies of China, India, and other emerging markets continue to drive up oil prices. As of Monday, AAA's national survey of gasoline prices showed an average price of $3.83 a gallon, 97 cents more than a year ago and just 28 cents short of the record high average price of $4.11 a gallon set on July 17, 2008. We've never had gas prices stay high for very long, but if they did, voters' patience with all manner of incumbents could wear thin.

Similarly, if Washington fumbles around on raising the debt limit, incumbents of all stripes could be in trouble. It is hard to find a smart and serious authority on world finance and economics that isn't warning of near apocalyptic results if the debt ceiling doesn't get raised.

Polling that shows Americans overwhelmingly opposed to raising the debt limit is a sign that people are interpreting the debt limit as a brake on government spending.

The Government Accountability Office answers this best in a February report to Congress pointing out that "the debt limit does not control or limit the ability of the federal government to run deficits or incur obligations. Rather, it is a limit on the ability to pay obligations already incurred" and that "the debt reflects previously enacted tax and spending policies." If the market develops serious doubts about whether the United States is going to pay its debtors, issue Social Security checks, and meet payroll in July, it could crater even more than the 778-point drop the Dow experienced the day after the House voted down TARP in September 2008.

The choice of paying Social Security or bondholders is basically a choice between political suicide or economic suicide. The Treasury Department has a finite amount of cash to juggle between accounts to stave off that Sophie's Choice.

Just as Americans are seeing their 401(k)'s getting back to where they were three years ago, it's not hard to imagine another plunge instigated by Washington triggering a violent reaction against many incumbents.

Maybe the last three elections have encouraged us to think entirely too binary; that an election is either "0" or "1" and can't be something else.

Maybe it could.

Washington should be afraid -- very, very afraid.

Image credit: Bogdan Cristel/Reuters