Many pundits and analysts are fans of calling 2014 an anti-incumbent year. Backing up their assertions is a new Battleground poll (conducted by a Democratic and GOP polling firm). The poll finds that while voters are sour on both parties they also express a dislike of their incumbent Senator or Congressman/woman. More specifically, a solid 42% disapprove of the job their Rep or Senator is doing compared to 46% who approve. Other notable findings from the poll show a narrow lead for the GOP on the generic ballot, Obamacare is unpopular, the President is struggling in overall and specific issue approval ratings and Hilary Clinton and Rand Paul are the only politicians with strong favorable ratings.
Leaving the latter aside for another time the Battleground poll suggests that 2014 could be an anti-incumbent year. But what exactly defines an anti-incumbent year? Is it how many incumbents lose in primaries, the general election, or both? To give some context it is important to note that between 2000 and 2006, few incumbents lost reelection. Strong gerrymandering plans and partisan polarization (and the lack of wave elections) assured many their jobs. But in 2006, 2008, and 2010 many members lost due to wave elections. The 2012 election also saw a decent share of members lose their seats due to redistricting and newly created competitive seats.
By far, 2010, stands out. The GOP gained 63 House seats and 6 Senate seats. Moreover, several long-time GOP incumbents were defeated in the primary process by conservative challengers and the retirements of several long-time Democrats allowed new faces to be elected in the Democratic Caucus. By the time 2011 rolled around a whopping 80+ new members were elected in the House and several new faces were introduced in the Senate. Neither 2006 or 2008 matches this number. One would assume that 2010 should thus be the measure of what constitutes an anti-incumbent electorate.
Despite polls in the past showing voters having a preference to keep their elected Representative or Senator in office, new polls in the last few years have shown that disapproval of Congress’s job is now impacting how voters rate their member. Yet, while Congress has a near 10% approval rating, individual members still retain a 46% approval rating (far higher than Congress as a whole). Few incumbents historically have lost reelection if they have a 46% approval rating in their district, especially in the House. Several reasons stand out.
1. Incumbent status: The power of incumbency is hard to overstate. While wave elections in three of the last four elections have left some questioning its power, it remains a strong asset nonetheless. Incumbency allows a member to raise large sums of cash, build credibility with district voters and have time to learn the geographical areas their reelection hinges on. It is notable that many of the members that lost since 2006 were in swing or only slightly left or right of center districts where the power of incumbency can be outweighed by national factors.
2. R vs. D: At the end of the day an election is largely a decision between a Democrat and a Republican. While the primary process in many states pits R or D candidates against each other most incumbents easily fend off challenges. Despite Tea Party success in 2010 and 2012 their primary challenges have largely fizzled out this year. Once in the general election many voters have to choose between the policies of the two candidates representing the major political parties. In many cases, this means voters default to partisan preferences and the polarized nature of the electorate gives the incumbent an edge if they reside in a center right or left district (as many do).
3. Constituency Service: Many members build credibility in their districts by offering constituency services to their constituents. This allows a member to localize their race and try to insulate themselves from national factors. In most cases this only goes so far however. Constituency services are only used by a small percentage of district or state voters. This means reelection arguments based on strong constituency service only impact a small segment of the electorate. In close races this could be the difference however.
4. Name ID: Many challengers struggle to build the name ID in their races that many incumbents enjoy. Usually incumbents are able to turn out their supporters because their supporters know who they are. Challengers oftentimes have to rely on anti-incumbent anger to get votes. This is not always the case, especially if challenger is well-funded and gets outside backing. Many challengers successes in 2010 on the GOP side were due to the strong fundraising ability and unique ability of candidates like Marco Rubio and Rand Paul.
This year does not seem likely to reflect 2010’s results in either the primary or general. For one thing, many members in the House and Senate are younger and new. Second, of the battleground Senate races this year, many feature a Democratic Senator running in a deeply red state. Thirdly, outside groups working to defeat GOP incumbents have fallen flat. For once, the GOP establishment seems to be able to breathe easy. Lastly, both political parties have done a fair job of clearing fields for their preferred nominees. Of course things can change quickly as they did in 2010. But voters oftentimes reflect their personal feelings in surveys and yet vote for the incumbent R or D due to their partisan and ideological preferences being so deep-seated (the alternative is worse).
Considering this, it is unlikely 2014 will be an anti-incumbent year the likes of 2010. Instead, there might be a few surprises here and there but most will likely come in the general election. And, of course, as in every election come November, voters will have to choose between an R and a D in a polarized, political environment.