Last week on the front page of Perspective we invited you to guess the size and strength of the Republican wave based on 10 factors to which we assigned a range of points. Now's the time to check your answers. As for us, we're bracing for some controversy: According to that framework we laid out just before Election Day, the Republican wave on Tuesday night was only ... "so-so."
Okay, okay, we hear you. The Republicans roared to a 60-odd seat gain in the House of Representatives, taking control of the chamber in the biggest one-day gain of House seats in more than six decades. They flipped at least 19 legislative chambers across the country. They seized roughly a dozen Democratic-held governorships. And in particular states, the carnage to the Democrats was massive — especially in Florida, where the GOP swept every statewide election and flipped four Democratic House seats.
Highly impressive achievements, all of them. But our metric was national in scope, and it sought to look past what we knew the headlines would be — whether the GOP would take control of Congress. If you dive a little deeper, the Republican wave was impressive, but not equally strong everywhere. Thus the middling rating.
To repeat our original mission statement: "Below are 10 factors designed to gauge not just how many seats the Republicans win, but how deeply the GOP cuts into historically Democratic territory, how much their performance has improved compared to 2008, and how much strong GOP candidates are helping weaker candidates elsewhere on the ballot. In addition, the following factors take into account several layers of government — not just Congress, but also the governorships, the state legislatures and state attorneys general."
As we explained last week, this exercise awarded points on a sliding scale, based on how well the Republicans did in 10 different types of election results. Those 10 scores are then added together to determine an overall rating of how strong the wave was.
Let's go to the numbers.
1. How many Democratic-held House seats does the GOP seize in states won by Barack Obama?
This was one of the Republicans' strongest factors on election night. The GOP flipped at least 42 House seats in Obama states, and it may win as many as six more, depending on what happens in recounts. GOP gains included at least five seats each in New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, four in Florida and three in Illinois and Virginia. Even if you assume the GOP wins all six of the seats still in question, which they probably won't, their score for this factor is 5 points.
2. How many GOP-held House seats do the Democrats flip?
There weren't many seats in reach for the Democrats on Election Day — nine at most — and the Democrats ended up winning three of them. The GOP score: 2 points.
3. How many more House seats in the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic states does the GOP hold after the election than before it?
The GOP scored pretty well here too. While the Republicans didn't steamroll Democrats in the region — vulnerable Democrats did survive in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine — they did quite well in a region that has grown ever more blue in the past two years. The GOP flipped five (possibly six) Democratic seats in New York, five in Pennsylvania, two in New Hampshire, one in New Jersey and one in Maryland. We subtracted one because a Republican-held seat in Delaware flipped to the Democrats, leaving a net gain of at least 13. For this factor, give the GOP 4 points.
4. Cumulative percentage points 2010 GOP Senate candidates in competitive races exceed John McCain's percentage in states Obama won in '08.
In every Senate race we looked at for this question, the Republican candidate improved upon John McCain's performance in that state during the 2008 presidential race. The biggest gainers were Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire (a 15-point improvement), Mark Kirk in Illinois (11 points), Rob Portman in Ohio (10) and Ron Johnson in Wisconsin (9) — all of whom won on Tuesday. In the 11 races we measured, the GOP scored a cumulative 82 points higher than McCain did. That was enough to earn them 4 points.
5. Cumulative percentage points that 2010 GOP Senate candidates in competitive races exceed the performance of 2008 Senate GOP candidates running in the same state.
In the states we looked at, each GOP candidate this year improved upon the 2008 Senate candidate's performance in the same state. However, the GOP doesn't score quite as well on this question as on the previous one. Kirk and Ayotte once again did well (19 and 15 points better, respectively), but the bumps were smaller in West Virginia, where John Raese added seven points; in Colorado, where Ken Buck added five; and in Kentucky, where Rand Paul added three. Cumulatively, this gets us to the cusp of either 2 or 3 points. Erring on the more generous side, we'll award 3 points.
6. In how many states does the GOP win a competitive Senate race and competitive gubernatorial race?
Dual GOP wins occurred in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin. But the party went 1-for-2 in New Hampshire and Illinois (if current trends hold), suggesting that wins in one race did not always drag the GOP candidate in the other race across the finish line. And the GOP struck out in both races in California, Colorado and perhaps Connecticut. Barring a late surprise in vote counting, you can award the GOP 2 points.
7.How many governorships does the GOP win in states won by Obama in 2008?
The GOP had a good election night for governorships, but many of the party's gains came from replacing Democrats who happened to be governing states that were otherwise strongly Republican, such as Kansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wyoming. The more challenging task was winning governorships in purple and blue states. Impressively, the GOP succeeded in at least eight such states — Florida, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. They came very close in Illinois and Minnesota but appear to have lost. And they failed to capitalize in several competitive gubernatorial races, including those in Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Oregon, plus a bunch of GOP-held governorships (see next question). So, barring a reversal in Illinois or Minnesota, we'll award 2 points.
8. How many of the following blue-state governorships occupied by Republicans can the GOP hold on to in 2010?
This was probably the weakest factor for the GOP on election night. The Republicans held six governorships in moderate-to-liberal states going into the election, but they appear to have lost all of them — California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Vermont. This suggests at least two things — first, that the Republican wave hit something of a breakwater in moderate-to-liberal states, and second, that there may have been an anti-incumbent flavor in this year's gubernatorial races. Indeed, in 18 of the 37 gubernatorial races this year, voters threw out the incumbent party — which is a high percentage based on historical patterns. So give the GOP only 1 point.
9. How many Democratic-held legislative chambers is the GOP able to flip?
With the exception of the Republicans' takeover of the U.S. House, this is the party's most stunning achievement of Election 2010. The GOP took over at least 19 Democratic-held chambers, with three more possibly shifting to the GOP, depending on late counting. (One, and possibly two, other Democratic chambers slipped into a tie.) Right now, the GOP qualifies for 6 points on this question, with an outside shot of eventually earning 7 points.
10. How many of the following competitive state attorney general races are won by the Republican candidate?
The GOP made gains in attorney general races on Election Night, though they did not come close to running the table. They won races in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Ohio and Oklahoma. They lost competitive races in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, New York and Rhode Island. The California race is too close to call, but even adding it to the GOP total doesn't change how many points they would get. The GOP earns 4 points.
Put it all together and you get 34 points, smack in the middle of our "so-so wave" category, and seven points shy of the threshold for a "decent wave."
You can quibble with our scale, which was more educated guess than science. Perhaps we should have adjusted the categories in a way that would have rated a score of 34 more highly. We could have weighted certain questions more heavily. Or perhaps we should have included more factors related to the House, where the GOP did so well.
Still, we intended to set a high bar — not just declaring it a massive wave if the GOP won a lot of easy or expected races, but only after winning a lot of tougher ones too. The GOP wave, powerful and historic, did not swallow everything vulnerable in its path.
It's worth pointing out that in a previous iteration of this exercise, published in the congressional newspaper Roll Call, the sweeping Obama victory of 2008 earned only a designation of "okay but not great," which is equivalent to what we're giving the GOP this year. (The analysis for the 2006 election, by contrast, produced a "strong Democratic wave.")
Disappointed with our call? Check back in two years.
Louis Jacobson, a staff writer with PolitiFact.com, has handicapped state and federal races for publications that include the Cook Political Report, the Rothenberg Political Report, Roll Call, stateline.org and Governing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.