CHARLOTTE, N.C. - After three straight waves, the 2012 election cycle looks likely to end in a wash.
Just nine weeks before Election Day, strategists in both parties say the current atmospherics don't tip the scale toward either Democrats or Republicans. Signs of a wave are usually visible by now, and the absence of one puts greater importance on the quality of individual candidates and campaigns, especially in House races.
"It means you have to run a real campaign for a change," Republican media consultant Curt Anderson said. "In '06 and '08, we did some great ads and great work and none of it mattered because the Democrats just put up an ad and said, 'Bush sucks, he's with Bush.'"
The Democratic National Convention kicks off today with candidates across the country running in a far more neutral environment than in the past three election cycles, when one party had a clear advantage.
But it's still early September, so political winds can shift because of game-changing events - such as the fall of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. Still, consultants have told their clients not to expect to ride a wave into Congress this year.
In this cycle, more than any other since 2004, the outcome of each Congressional race will be determined by the candidates on the ballot, as opposed to the national political environment.
In the House, Democrats would need a wave-type atmosphere to net the 25 seats they need to win back the majority, and it doesn't appear they'll get that this year. Republicans gained 63 seats in the 2010 elections, winning back suburban and Southern seats the party had lost in the Democratic wave elections of 2006 and 2008.
"It does feel like each individual race is being fought on its own terms," Democratic pollster Jef Pollock said. "Obviously we are all underneath the presidential, but that's the way it is in every presidential. But in each race it feels like you've got to move the ball inch by inch, you're sort of fighting for yardage."
The actual number of seats a party is likely to pick up doesn't typically become clear until closer to the elections. Even in a wave, subpar House candidates or campaigns can ride into Congress on their party's national coattails, far exceeding expectations. The opposite is true for quality candidates running in the wrong year.
"Some of my best candidates and best campaigns went down last cycle, and I don't feel they did anything wrong," Pollock said.
With one convention down, the presidential race is closer than ever. President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney were tied as of Monday in the RealClearPolitics.com average of recent national polls.
Senate control is up for grabs as well, though Democrats certainly appear more likely to hold the majority than they did a year ago. Even in wave elections, Senate races are largely their own beasts.
That was evident in 2010, when Democrats held three of their most vulnerable seats - in Nevada, Colorado and Delaware - even in a Republican wave.
"Senate races have the ability of sort of creating their own weather patterns, much more than House races do, just because of the media attention they get and the amount of money they spend," Anderson said.
Republican strategists don't believe the House will move more than a few seats in either direction. The potential for a stalemate was aided, in part, by a redistricting process that provided no net gain for either party. Both parties have newfound opportunities to play offense following redistricting, but also made some of their own districts more secure.
"We're not going to trade within a very wide range, barring some unforeseen development - and Lord knows we could see something like that," Republican pollster Jon McHenry said.
Democratic strategists hope that if the party can't win the majority this cycle, it can at least position itself to do so in 2014.
Democratic media consultant John Rowley said Romney's selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) as the vice presidential nominee could help Democrats pick up an extra five to seven seats, with Medicare more of a central theme in individual races where a Democratic challenger can make the race a referendum on the incumbent.
"If you're trying to defeat an incumbent Republican, this is part of the referendum on their job performance," Rowley said.
However, it likely won't be a national game-changer given the environment.
"It individualizes the campaigns," Rowley said. "The stronger individual candidates who often can localize rather than nationalize the race typically come out ahead."
Each of the past few cycles have featured successful candidates who, in a less friendly environment for their party, likely would never have made it to Capitol Hill. Successful candidates this cycle need to be far more aggressive and strategic in framing the race, GOP media consultant Erik Potholm said.
"A wave election often helps even poor candidates cross the finish line who didn't run the best campaigns, because the voter backlash against the party in power is so strong and intense," Potholm said. "But in a more neutral environment, there is clearly a premium on candidates running top-notch campaigns and having every level of their operation running on all cylinders."