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Another polarized 'wave' election

Moderates fed up with both parties have led to rapid swings in control of Congress - much like the start of the 1900s.

Soon, the newly elected members of the coming Republican U.S. House majority will troop to Washington to fill out their federal-employee paperwork, hire staff, and get a suite in one of the three Capitol office buildings lining Independence Avenue.

They might not want to get too comfortable.

Voters last week ousted at least 60 House Democrats, producing the biggest midterm partisan shift in more than seven decades. More important, Tuesday's was the second such "wave" election in four years, reflecting an increased volatility in the nation's politics.

In 1994, voters gave control of the House to the GOP for the first time in 40 years. But in 2006, Democrats got it back as the midterm elections became a referendum on the unpopular Iraq war and the presidency of George W. Bush. The party's gains continued in 2008, when it picked up 21 seats as President Obama was elected.

Experts who study voting trends trace the phenomenon to accelerating polarization of the two parties, with Republicans growing more conservative and Democrats more liberal, leaving a large bloc of unattached moderates up for grabs. At least since 2000, this has led to close presidential elections and more frequent switches in control of Congress.

The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression only added to the ferment in 2010.

"A lot of these people in the middle of the spectrum are searching for answers: 'We need a change, a new direction,' " said Daniel Shea, a political scientist who directs the Allegheny College Center for Political Participation.

"The big question is: What happens in the next election?" Shea said. "If things haven't turned around, and independents are still scrambling for solutions, who are they going to blame?"

Republican leaders acknowledge that they may lose the House in 2012 if their prescription of tax cuts and less government spending does not deliver. But likely incoming Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) also claimed a mandate, saying Tuesday's result was a "repudiation" of Washington's direction under the Democrats.

Media exit polls taken Tuesday, however, are replete with evidence that many voters were not wild about the GOP, either. For instance, 58 percent of independents surveyed said they viewed Democrats unfavorably, while 57 percent said they had negative views of Republicans.

Voters in the polls were divided on top GOP policy priorities - 48 percent said Congress should repeal the Obama administration's health-care overhaul, but 47 percent said it should be kept as is or expanded. And 39 percent said Washington's top priority should be to reduce the budget deficit, while 37 percent said it should be to spend more money to create jobs.

"We are still really the 50-50 nation we showed ourselves to be in the 2000 election, and all of the waves and national events are really only pushing us from one party to another," said Lara M. Brown, assistant professor of political science at Villanova University.

"At the end of the day," she said, "no party has dominance, and no party should read these wins as ideological mandates to pursue their partisan agenda."

The nation has gone through such stretches before; indeed, some historians are reminded of the Gilded Age of the 1890s, when corruption, along with financial and social upheavals, led to wide swings in House control. Eventually, the era gave rise to the progressive movement.

"It's a period that, in many ways, I think, suggests some disturbing parallels to our own," Stanford University historian David M. Kennedy said during a discussion Wednesday on WBUR-FM, a Boston public radio station. "There were major issues that were brewing on the national political agenda, having to do with industrial growth and regulation, immigration, foreign policy - all of which went largely unattended to because of the incoherence and instability and indecisiveness of that national political system."

In 1894, the GOP won a landslide midterm, picking up 135 seats in a smaller House (it then had 357 seats, instead of today's 435). Unemployment ranged from 12 percent to 18 percent, and voters blamed Democratic President Grover Cleveland and his party's congressional leaders.

But two years later, the GOP lost 48 seats, even as Republican William McKinley won the presidential race. In the 1910 midterms, the Democrats took advantage of infighting between liberal and conservative wings of the GOP to pick up 57 seats. They grabbed 82 more and the presidency two years later.

The two parties alternated losing seats during World War I and the Roaring Twenties. With the Depression, there was a massive realignment, and Democrats dominated Congress for decades, with a few exceptions in the post-World War II years of economic stagnation.

Various forces have led each major party to become more ideologically "pure," said Shea, of Allegheny College. They include the civil rights movement, which gradually drove most Southern conservatives to the GOP, and the rise of evangelical right-wing activists in the 1980s, which began the flight of many liberals and moderates from the Republican Party.

A Zogby International Poll before Tuesday's election found that a majority of independent voters said they wanted political leaders who were "flexible" and open to compromise. When partisan voters were added into the mix, compromise was less popular overall.

In September, a national survey of registered voters conducted for Allegheny College found that 44 percent believed it was important for politicians to compromise, while 52 percent would prefer leaders who stood firm on principles.

Some analysts wonder whether the political instability will continue, and ask how a polarized country can work out solutions to its long-deferred difficult problems, such as the national debt and the underfunding of the Social Security and Medicare programs.

Yet Curtis Gans, director of American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate, thinks the patterns fueling recent upheaval in House elections - restless independents and depressed turnout among voters affiliated with the party in power - are not inevitable.

"It will stop when people feel their government is working," Gans said. "The public has shown it's not averse to continuity . . . when people think the country is headed in the right direction."