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Year of the anti-incumbent? Not so fast

August 25, 2010
Matt Streb

Matthew Streb

by Matt Streb, Associate Professor of Political Science

If you have paid even minimal attention to coverage of the upcoming midterm elections, then you have probably heard an anchor, reporter or pundit refer to 2010 as the “year of the anti-incumbent.”

It is understandable why such a perception exists. Consider the high profile losses in the congressional primaries of incumbents such as U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania and U.S. Rep. Parker Griffith in Alabama. In fact, to date, six incumbent members of Congress have lost in the primary. On top of that, U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas had a near miss, and polls consistently find that a majority of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Still, even in this year of political upheaval, it’s a safe bet that an overwhelming percentage of incumbents will be re-elected.

Sure, we will see more incumbents unseated than in 2004, when only five failed to win re-election. And we probably will see more than the 19 incumbents unseated than in 2008. But it is highly probable that more than 90 percent of incumbents will return to Washington, D.C., for the 112th Congress.

Indeed, the Cook Political Report, one of the authoritative publications handicapping congressional races, lists only 24 incumbents whose seats are labeled “tossups.”  If each of those incumbents lost — something that is highly unlikely — the incumbent re-election rate would still be roughly 94 percent. In other words, few incumbents will need to go job hunting after November.

Why is this the case? How can so many incumbents win even when the public seems so thoroughly disgusted with Washington?

Some political scientists attribute the staggering re-election rate to the “incumbency advantage.”  Incumbents have greater name recognition and, more importantly, more campaign money than most challengers.

Others argue that the redistricting process has led to few hotly contested elections because district lines in many states are drawn to protect incumbents.

Finally, although members of the public bemoan the current state of affairs, people are generally happy with the representation they are receiving from their individual members of Congress. Poll after poll, year after year, shows that constituents genuinely like their congressional representatives; it is the other 434 bums who are to blame for the problems facing the country.

In reality, the answer is some combination of all these explanations. Whatever the case, come November, don’t be surprised when the “year of the anti-incumbent” looks awfully familiar.

Matt Streb teaches courses and conducts research on Congress, American electoral democracy, political parties and elections, and polling and public opinion. He is the author of two books: “The New Electoral Politics of Race” (University of Alabama, 2002) and “Rethinking American Electoral Democracy” (Routledge, 2008). He recently was appointed to a year-long post serving as associate to NIU President John Peters.