Will 2012 Be an Anti-Incumbent Year?

by John Sides on December 10, 2011 · 5 comments

in Campaigns and elections

“Record High Anti-Incumbent Sentiment,” Gallup reports.  Here’s a graph:

Well, we went through this in 2010, and the reelection rate of incumbents was still 87%—a little lower than in most elections since 1970, but hardly low.

In 2012, I’m even less convinced that anti-incumbency sentiment will actually get incumbents out of office.   What happened in 2010 was not due to generalized anti-incumbent sentiment, but to an anti-Democratic sentiment.  When lots of incumbents decide not to run or run and lose, it’s usually a by-product of a partisan wave.  (One exception is 1992, due to the House banking scandal.  See this piece by Gary Jacobson and Michael Dimock.)

What does this mean for 2012?  Based on weak economic growth and middling presidential approval, we’d expect the Democrats to lose some seats.  But they don’t have many seats to lose at this point.  At the same time, low congressional approval hurts the majority party, other things equal.  Given that the constellation of economic growth, presidential approval, seat share, and congressional approval don’t forecast a clear partisan wave, my guess is that incumbents are relatively safe.

I’d be convinced otherwise if I learned that quality challengers were lining up to challenge incumbents in one or both parties and raising a lot of money to do so.  That’s to be determined, but color me skeptical at this point.

{ 5 comments }

Ben Bishin December 10, 2011 at 11:13 am

it is still a little too early to tell, but redistricting could make big waves. Independent commissions in California and a new law in Florida appear to guarantee Dems pick up at least 3 seats in each state with another 2-3 seats (in each state) as toss ups. And it seems that Texas’s gain of 4 seats wont be as harmful to Dems as it first appeared it might–the judges plan looked to give Dems 3 of those 4 seats (as opposed to the GOP’s plan which looked to give all of them to the GOP). If these results stick, the Dems look to easily pick up 9-10 seats just from these three states, almost 40% of what they would need to take back the House. And the number could easily be 12-13.

idiot December 10, 2011 at 3:13 pm

“Well, we went through this in 2010, and the reelection rate of incumbents was still 87%—a little lower than in most elections since 1970, but hardly low.”

Maybe that what they mean by an “anti-incumbent year”, when more incumbents lose than normal?

Because a generalized anti-incumbent sentiment that carries on from election to election is a bad sign: it means continued instability as control over the government shift every election period (as the incumbents get thrown out, replaced by new incumbents, thrown out again, etc.), and indicate massive malaise and cynicism that may take a long time to ‘cure’. Granted, now that we live in the “Era of Divided Government” since 1968, with no party able to hold control over the US Presidency for more than 3 terms …we may already be entering into this period.

Tracy Lightcap December 10, 2011 at 7:21 pm

What I’d like to know is if there has been any research (probably so) on the situation this year. That is, very high levels of disapproval of incumbents and redistricting and the reflux from the 2010 wave. It strikes me that, as in 2010 with the Dems, the Pubs are defending a lot of naturally Dem seats in an environment where the majority party usually suffers and many district lines are in flux. Sounds like there’s a dissertation in there somewhere, if it hasn’t already been done.

debwkart December 10, 2011 at 10:48 pm

I believe the Democrats care more about the middle class and poor in the U.S. however I think OccupyWallStreet should also talk about occupying Congress. Either Congress should vote in the same health, pension and retirement benefits they receive as a congressperson or they should all leave. They are spoiled and rich. They don’t know what it is like to be middle class, let alone poor. It reminds me of the French Revolution.

Phill December 11, 2011 at 11:14 am

“I’d be convinced otherwise if I learned that quality challengers were lining up to challenge incumbents in one or both parties and raising a lot of money to do so. That’s to be determined, but color me skeptical at this point.”

I think this is the key factor. In fact, it may be even more key than it had been before, since we’ve been subject to the anti-incumbent-fueled rise of the Tea Party in congress. I think that the current anti-incumbent trend will lead to less voting. If you don’t think the person in office should be there, but the alternatives are even worse, then you don’t really have any options.

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