Publication / DecodeDC/ Scripps
May 15, 2014
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Don’t listen to the polls, most incumbents will stay in office

Historically, 9 in 10 incumbents win re-election

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Pollsters, statisticians and probably some bookies are furiously guesstimating the outcome of the midterm election that is still six months away. A Gallup Poll that came out Monday declared “Anti-Incumbent Sentiment Strong in the U.S.” And that may be true, but if history is any guide, far fewer bums will get tossed out than we might expect.

General views of Congress aren’t accurate measures

Yes, the percentage of voters who approve of most members of Congress is at an all-time low. According to Gallup, of 1,336 registered voters polled in April, only 22 percent say most members of Congress deserve a re-election. This number is on pace to be the lowest number measured in an election year since Gallup began asking the question in 1992. And it really is an important measure of how unpopular Congress is.

But here’s the key distinction about public opinions on Congress as a whole — they don’t matter on election day.

Voters might dislike Congress in total, but they are much more forgiving of their own representatives. In the same poll, Gallup measured that 50 percent of voters say their own member deserves re-election; that’s a 28 point “home town advantage” over Congress as a whole. This is similar to elections in ’92, ’94, ’06 and ’10.

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Gallup Inc., 2014

People vote for the familiar

Look at the chart. Data going back to 1992 show that voters are less positive about Congress as a whole than their own representatives. And even though about 50-60 percent generally say their own member deserves reelection, a whopping 9 in 10 incumbents still win their seat every election cycle. The year 2010 had the lowest number of incumbents winning their seats back, but the number of them who stayed on was still 85 percent.

According to Gallup, the biggest variable in the reelection rate is how voters view their own member of Congress. Examples are in 1992 and 2010 when roughly 50 percent of registered voters thought their member of Congress deserved reelection, which is low.  And the reelection rate was slightly below 90 percent in those years, also a historical low. What Gallup ultimately concludes is the numbers suggest “that incumbents may be less successful than usual in winning re-election this year.” And that isn’t saying much.

Primary elections are even safer

Don’t buy into the hype that primaries might be the real issue for incumbents. Sure candidates have recently increased their spending on primary campaigns either to make strong, clear wins against challengers to boost their image in the general elections, or to boot-out a Tea Party challenger, but most incumbents win their primaries too. Actually, it’s even easier for them.

A study conducted by the Rhodes Cook Letter found that far more congressional incumbents lose general elections than they do primaries. And we already know the statistics of the general elections, so that can’t be much.

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Rhodes Cook Newsletter, 2014

Looking at the chart you can see how little movement occurs in primaries. According to the study, 80 percent of House members and 80 percent of Senators who lost reelection did so in November to a challenger of a different party, not in their primary. The same goes for the last two elections of 2010 and 2012, in which the Tea Party had significant impact on the primaries. Still 80 percent of “congressional casualties” came from the general election.

Although it’s more likely this year than in many previous years that fewer incumbents will win reelection — either losing in primaries or the general elections — the change will be slight.  Despite national mood swings, incumbents seem to have figured out how to be popular at home.