Let's Stop Kidding Ourselves: 90 Percent of Congressional Incumbents Will Win Re-election

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All signs tell us that incumbents should be grabbed by their lapels and shoved to the curb—but most won't be.

June 20, 2014

Tony Webster/WikimediaTony Webster/WikimediaEven in the most catastrophic year for congressional incumbents, 90 percent of them will win re-election—and most of them will do so rather easily. Many of them, in fact, won't even have to run a campaign.

This fact might be somewhat obscured lately, what with all the talk of the impending populist insurrection. "Anti-incumbent wave building," says The Detroit News. "Eric Cantor's surprise defeat is a warning to all Republicans," says Slate. "Eric Cantor's Loss Was Like an Earthquake" says

FiveThirtyEight. Ron Fournier of the National Journal writes, "Elites Beware: Eric Cantor's Defeat May Signal a Populist Revolution." And so it goes and goes.

Fournier, in fact, discovers that Americans aren't exceptionally fond of big banks, big business, or big government—which would have been an intriguing piece of information in 2009, when populist right-wing anger flooded out into the open. Since then, though, the revolution has been on a slow boil. That doesn't mean the anger isn't real. It doesn't mean that the distrust won't grow. And it doesn't mean there won't be change. It just means we rarely, if ever, blame our own. In 2010, a year that saw one of the lowest re-election rates in decades after an eruption of anti-D.C. populism, 9 in 10 House incumbents won their races. After 2012, the Bloomberg Government Barometer found that 9 in 10 members of the House and Senate won their races as well.

And this year, all signs tell us that incumbents should be grabbed by their lapels and shoved to the curb. Per Gallup:

1) Most of us believe that the country is headed the wrong way. Today only 23 percent of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going, roughly equivalent to the 22 percent we saw during the 2010 elections and the 24 percent before the 1982 elections.

2) Most of us detest Congress. According to Gallup, it has a 16 percent approval rating, on pace to be the lowest in a midterm election year since Gallup first began measuring this number in 1974. RealClearPolitics puts the average at 13 percent.

3) Most of us hate our own representative slightly more than usual. Only 46 percent of Americans now claim —and we should stress "claim"—that their own representative deserves re-election.

And of course, "deserve" has absolutely nothing to do with Washington. Though numbers are hard to come by, it is reasonable to assert that Americans are less apt to renew their cellphone plans, credit cards, and gym memberships than they are to re-elect their politicians. In most districts, Americans discard trends, pop stars, and actors/actresses with a far higher frequency than they do senators. A more accurate—or perhaps a less imperfect—method of measuring congressional approval ratings would be to compile the approval ratings of all 435 representatives and calculate the average. The present method of polling basically asks voters: What do you think of everyone else's stupid choices? A question rigged to bring you a preposterously low and useless number in an era of heightened partisan warfare.

With that said, I would contend that creating more competitive races in the general elections is an awfully overrated idea. Districts are now generally represented by people who, broadly speaking, reflect the attitudes and aspirations of those who inhabit their districts. This is far more desirable than creating hundreds of battleground districts across the country, which would only further politicize American life. What should be concerning to populists is the fact that within the primary system, the place where genuine change can be made, incumbents lose even more rarely. Since 1968, only 130 representatives and 24 senators have lost primary contests. Since 2008, only 16 Republicans have lost in nearly a thousand races.

So in some ways, Cantor's loss, though dramatic and unprecedented, may be less surprising than the ousting of a backbencher who meticulously tends to his district and avoids the controversy that comes with the national spotlight. It showed us that money can't buy democracy, that anyone can be booted. But congressmen who take care of the little things and bring home the pork are elected in perpetuity. Perhaps there is something positive to be said for the stability of it all. Either way, there is little repercussion for failure, mostly because we never blame our own. And for the most part, we won't blame our own in 2014, either.

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  • CptNerd|6.20.14 @ 7:53PM|#

    Like hell it's "my fault", I'm not the one who gerrymandered my Representative into one of the safest Democrat districts ever (4:1 Dem to Rep), and I've voted against the incumbent every 2 years. Of course, now he's retiring, so I guess that makes it all better, except he'll still be succeeded by a Dem...

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