A lot of hay will be made this week of a new USAT/Pew survey that suggests Democrats are some many respects (especially presidential approval rating and the congressional generic ballot) in a weaker position than they were at this point in the catastrophic 2010 cycle. It also shows that pessimism about the economy remains very strong, just at the point of the election cycle when perceptions of such matters may be beginning to “lock in” barring dramatic improvements.
There’s no question this particular poll is depressing for Democrats. But lest Republicans get too carried away, the growing talk of a “wave like 2010” or “a bigger wave than 2010” ignores what was a huge factor in what happened four years ago: exposure. The 2010 elections came after two consecutive Democratic landslides. By almost any measure, Democrats were “over-exposed” and ripe for significant losses even in a neutral environment. That’s obviously not true today with respect to U.S. House, gubernatorial and state legislative positions. Any Republican gains, if they occur at all, won’t be anything like those of four years ago, even if the GOP wins the fictional “national popular vote” by margins like those of 2010.
There’s one exception to the general lack of Democratic exposure in 2014, of course: the Senate, where Democrats are defending more incumbents, and certainly more red-state incumbents, than in 2010. So, paradoxically, a smaller “wave” than 2010 could produce greater Republican Senate gains (with the odds flipping drastically in terms of the 2016 Senate landscape), and even a larger “wave” won’t produce anything like the gains in other offices. We might as well get accustomed to this, and use a bit more precision in language than is common in election analysis.