LOVEY | Monitoring political waves in Colorado | Opinion
Now is the time for people who follow Colorado politics to start working on their political watch.
According to Colorado and national media, a great red wave is rising far out in the political ocean that will hit the electoral beach in Colorado and across the United States next November.
Red wave? It’s “red” as in Republican, and “vague” as in a torrent of votes. Giant waves occur periodically during US elections and are therefore the subject of extensive study by political scientists.
One thing about political waves is that the trained eye can see them coming, prepare for them, and make predictions based on them. The problem with wave watching is that sometimes waves that seem big in the spring can lose strength, dwindle over the summer, and turn out to be very little in the fall vote.
There is therefore a need for trained political observers to work on their ability to observe the waves.
In the 1950s, a political scientist, Eugene Burdick, wrote a political novel called “The Ninth Wave”. The book compared political wave watching to the way surfers would float on their surfboards and study incoming waves in the ocean. The goal is to choose a big wave that will provide a nice ride and carry the surfer on a surfboard to the beach.
This was Burdick’s assertion that trained politicians should study political waves the same way surfers study real waves. Politicians should learn to choose big waves that will lead to one political party or the other winning many political positions in a particular election.
The “ninth wave” in the title of the book was based on the surfing legend that every ninth wave should be good and provide a happy ride to the ocean shore.
Let’s start working on our observation of the waves by looking at some of the major political waves that have swept across the United States in past elections.
A big wave came in 1936 when Democratic incumbent President Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for a second term in the White House. The New Deal reforms that FDR had developed in an attempt to alleviate the economic effects of the Great Depression of 1929 had made him extremely popular.
The resulting tsunami of Democratic votes was so great that Roosevelt carried off 46 of the 48 states in the United States at that time. Roosevelt won every state except Maine and Vermont, and he dragged a large number of Democrats with him into other elected offices.
His fellow Democrats ended up with large majorities in the US Senate and US House of Representatives on Capitol Hill.
A smaller wave swept across the United States in 1952. A famous US Army general during World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower, ran for president and proved an extremely effective vote-collector. . The resulting Republican wave carried GOP majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time since the late 1920s.
But remember this about political waves. Just like real ocean waves, they expend their energy roaring on the beach, but then lose their power and quickly recede into the ocean.
It was the same with the Eisenhower wave of 1952. Just two years later, in the 1954 congressional elections, the Democratic Party regained control of the US Senate and the US House. The big lesson was that political waves can be a temporary phenomenon followed by a rapid correction in subsequent elections.
Another major political wave, this one a negative wave, occurred in 1964. Barry Goldwater, a U.S. senator from Arizona, won the Republican presidential nomination but turned out to be an unusually incompetent candidate and unpopular. He had opposed the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 just when the civil rights movement in the United States was at the height of its popularity.
Incumbent Democratic President Lyndon Johnson won re-election in the biggest Democratic wave since the Roosevelt wave of 1936. Goldwater carried only five southern states and his home state of Arizona.
Democrats won large majorities in both houses of Congress, thanks to the Goldwater debacle, and the result was progressive legislation such as Medicare (medical care for the elderly) and US government aid for public education.
Republican President Richard Nixon unleashed a cascade of votes when he ran for re-election in 1972. He easily beat his Democratic opponent, US Senator from South Dakota, George McGovern, who had strongly opposed the United States fighting in the Vietnam War.
But this Republican push of 1972 was quickly reversed in 1974. Nixon had to resign from the presidency because of the Watergate scandal. Voters expressed their disapproval of Nixon by overwhelmingly voting Democratic for Congress.
For a good example of an election wave that never hit the beach, there was the 1998 congressional election. Democratic President Bill Clinton reportedly had character issues, but the big wave of Republican votes for the Congress that was expected never materialized.
The most recent election wave was in 2018, when dissatisfaction with Republican President Donald Trump after two years in the White House created a “blue wave” of Democratic election victories across the country.
In Colorado, this Great Blue Wave elected a Democratic Governor, State Treasurer, State Attorney General, State Secretary of State, and Democratic majorities in both houses of the Colorado Legislature.
The Great Red Wave of 2022, expected to arrive this fall, is believed to be driven by Democratic President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings and a host of nasty national issues, such as high inflation, rising urban crime rates and complications resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our advice? Get the political equivalents of a folding chair, umbrella, and sunscreen. Sit on the electoral range. You see that big red wave rising out there on the election ocean?
Be an observer of political waves. Keep an eye on it. It could be a “ninth wave”. Or maybe not.
Bob Loevy is a retired political science professor at Colorado College.