2010 Was a Pretty Good Year for Incumbents After All

by John Sides on November 10, 2010 · 9 comments

in Campaigns and elections

Back when pundits were tripping over themselves to call 2010 an “anti-incumbent” year or an “anti-Establishment” year, conveniently eliding the distinction as it served their purposes, I wrote:

I would be very surprised if any “anti-incumbent fervor” put much dent in the extraordinarily high rates at which incumbents are reelected.

And then I forecast that among House incumbents running for the general election, 87% would win. Commenter treetop noted last week that my prediction was good. Our data suggest at this moment that 86% of House incumbents won their general election bids. Here’s a graph with data from 1972-2010.


Clearly, incumbents did a little worse in 2010 relative to other years, although 1974 is similar (89%). So I wouldn’t be surprised if some breathless commentator is already declaring that OMG THIS WAS THE MOST ANTI-INCUMBENT ELECTION IN ALMOST 40 YEARS.

Me, I’m still pretty impressed by 87%.

But perhaps incumbents won by slimmer margins? Not really. The median percent of the two-party vote won by incumbents was very much in line with the historical average since 1972: 65% in 2010, compared to 68% overall.

And here’s another interesting thing. You might think that lots of incumbents decided not to run or lost their primary races in 2010. I calculated the percent of races with no incumbent running in the general election and it was an astonishing…10%. Which was really no different than most recent elections. Here again is a graph:


There might be other ways you could prove that incumbents had a harder time in 2010. As Brendan Nyhan has shown, Democratic incumbents in competitive districts were more likely to face quality challengers. But that suggests how the climate in 2010 was disadvantageous to Democrats, not to incumbents as a whole.

What is the bottom line? Don’t read too much into a few isolated early primaries (see: Robert Bennett) or into polls where vast majorities of Americans disapprove of Congress or even indicate their willingness to vote for the challenger.

Incumbents still dominate congressional elections.


John November 11, 2010 at 2:18 am

I imagine the status quo also prevailed when it came to the classic question of “Congress in general” vs. “My Congressman.” At the polling firm where I work 2010 was definitely a terrible year for everyone else’s Congressman, but a pretty mundane for my Congresman.

Brendan Moore November 11, 2010 at 4:12 am

“So I wouldn’t be surprised if some breathless commentator is already declaring that OMG THIS WAS THE MOST ANTI-INCUMBENT ELECTION IN ALMOST 40 YEARS.”

I actually did just see this in an article, though I can’t for the life of me remember where.

Jon November 11, 2010 at 8:44 am

Is this data coded to take into account that there were more than a few seats that were rematches from 2010 in the House? For example, my district is Ohio 1, and though Steve Driehaus was my member, so was Steve Chabot until Driehaus unseated him in 08. Do we count Driehaus as the incumbent or Chabot? It’d be hard to tell. Though it does fit with the quality challenger characterization.

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