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What Happens When Dozens Of Wave-Year Freshmen Join The House?

It might be hard to tell at the moment, but there are freshmen Democrats in the House other than New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. While Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive women have become the face of the new class in Congress, a total of 64 newly elected Democrats joined Congress this month, each of them with their own platform and political leanings. Yet all of them won their seats in the same wave election that swung at least 40 House seats to the Democrats1 — an election that has media wags wondering if the new Democratic representatives will cause headaches for the old guard.

The data suggests … probably not.

American politics have been inundated by big waves before, and a close look at how those freshmen classes voted may shed light on how today’s wave might affect the government. In 1994, for example, under the banner of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” the GOP ushered in a so-called Republican Revolution, swinging Congress 54 seats to the right. In 2010, Republicans did it again, this time powered by the tea party; the GOP picked up 63 seats. But American politics are turbulent. In 2006 and 2008, it was the Democrats’ turn to surf — they picked up 31 and 21 seats those years. While there is no widely accepted definition of a “wave” year, there seems to be some consensus that these four elections were waves, so that’s where I’m going to focus my analysis.

After they were elected, all of these wave-riding freshman representatives actually had to go to work and cast votes. Votes are data, and data, in this case, turns into ideology scores. Specifically, we can use Nokken-Poole ideology scores to see whether wave-year freshmen voted demonstrably differently from their more veteran peers. (This method boils down actual congressional votes into a single dimension, meaning that bigger negative numbers represent more liberal positions and bigger positive numbers represent more conservative positions.)

With a possible exception of Republicans elected in 2010, when the tea party was big, first-year representatives entering Congress in a wave year don’t look all that different from any of the other representatives — they tend to be distributed across the ideology score spectrum in about the same way as their longer-serving peers. That could be good news for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she tries to keep her caucus in line.

But it’s not just the wave-riding freshmen who aren’t that different from the veterans. Freshmen of all classes tend to vote similarly to — or, if anything, slightly to the right of — their party elders. These are the ideological distributions of all freshmen and all non-freshmen from 1994 through 2018.

But what became of these freshmen who rode into Congress on electoral waves? Did those who were re-elected (and, in some cases, re-elected and re-elected and re-elected …) begin to alter their legislative behavior after they’d served for a while? Where could Ocasio-Cortez and her peers end up, ideologically speaking, in a decade’s time, if they follow roughly the same path as those who came before them?

There is some weak evidence that those congresspeople who rode in on recent waves — be they Democrats or Republicans — shifted to the left over time. (For the universe of all congresspeople, there is some evidence that spending more time in Congress means a person takes, on average, a slightly more extreme ideological position.) The Republicans of the class of 1994, for example, became on average more moderate than their fellow congressmen, while the Democrats of the classes of 2006 and 2008 became on average more liberal. Practically speaking, however, these effects appear small, especially when each wave-year class is viewed as an aggregate. The single red and blue lines on the chart below represent the careers of each newly elected member of that year’s wave party, while the thick black lines show a smoothed trend for each class. The members of the wave classes thin out over time and, in some cases, shift their ideologies.

There are a couple of notable outliers clearly visible above. In 1999, Rep. Michael Forbes, who had been a freshman in the Republican Revolution class, announced he was becoming a Democrat. And in 2009, Democratic Rep. Parker Griffith became a Republican while still a freshman — he’d been elected in a Democratic wave just over a year before.

There’s an important caveat to all this: the Nokken-Poole scores are built only on how congresspeople vote. The scores don’t tell us anything about what the congresspeople are voting on, or the ripple effects that freshmen may have on senior members by, for example, threatening to vote as a bloc, introducing legislation the House might not otherwise have considered, or using their public appearances to rile up segments of senior members’ electorates who might not normally contact their representatives. For instance, some pundits have argued that the tea party changed “the very DNA of the GOP.” (Congress has tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act many times since 2010, for example, which was one of the main planks of the tea party movement.) Others have argued that Gingrich’s Republican Revolution is linked to “the upheaval now taking place around the globe.” Only time will tell what effects the recent and ongoing blue wave might have. Already, we can see how young left is trying to expand which ideas Democrats are willing to entertain — including, perhaps, remaking the country’s very economic system.

We don’t yet have ideological measures for the freshmen swept into the House on 2018’s wave, of course — they haven’t participated in enough votes in D.C. But if today’s freshmen stick around long enough to become senior statesmen, there are hints here that they may shift the House even further to the left. Cowabunga, dude.



Footnotes

  1. No winner has been certified in one House race, North Carolina’s 9th District.

Oliver Roeder is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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