Campaigns and elections

Punishing Your Own Representative: What to Make of New CNN Poll?

Joshua Tucker Feb 17 '10

In a “post last week”:, I raised the question of why it was that whenever we think about economic voting in legislative elections as meaning that bad economic conditions hurt the incumbent candidate, we always consider the _incumbent_ to be the candidate representing the president’s party. In a “closed-list proportional representation”: electoral system, this makes perfect sense: the only option the voter has to vote for or against particular parties, and the voter has no say over which party members actually get to sit in the legislature. But in “single member district”: electoral systems, as we have in the United States, angry voters could choose to throw the current office holder in their district out of office, regardless of whether that office holder was of the president’s party or not.

In “response”:, John cited research by “Alan Abramowitz”: suggesting that empirically this just doesn’t occur very often (although note Abromowitz is talking about the even more proximate cause of discontent with Congress, as opposed to just poor economic conditions):

bq. Discontent with Congress does not lead to a general tendency to kick out incumbents. Occasionally voters do get upset and give the boot to a large number of incumbents—but they almost always take out their dissatisfaction on the members of only one party—the president’s party.

Larry Bartels “offered a reason”: why this would be the case. Looking for a punishment effect of the type I suggested:

bq. requires one to ignore lots of good evidence that voters see little connection between “Republicans in Congress” and their own Republican member of Congress.

And as John noted, Abramowitz also wrote that:

bq. As the noted congressional scholar Richard Fenno has observed, Americans generally love their own congressperson even though they dislike Congress. They tend to see their own Senators and Representatives as the rare good apples in an otherwise rotten barrel.

So with that discussion in mind, here are some interesting results from a “new CNN poll”: (for details, see “here”: The figure displays the percentage of respondents who believe (a) that most members of Congress deserve re-election and (b) that their representative deserves reelection in 2000 and 2010. (The bars do not sum to 100% because I did not graph the “no opinion” respondents.)


Two facts are quickly apparent. First, Americans are clearly much more dissatisfied with Congress now than they were a decade ago. Second, both in 2000 and 2010, Americans liked their own representative more than they liked Congress as a whole.

The interesting remaining question, though, is what to make of the fact that the proportion of Americans who believe their own member does _not_ deserve to be re-elected is now close to the proportion believing their representative does deserve to be reelected? It is of course possible this is simply picking up partisan preference (ie., Democrats who have a Republican representative and visa-versa), but then shouldn’t we have seen a roughly similar pattern in 2000? It is also possible that the Tea Party movement and the liberal blogosphere are combining to make many Democrats and Republicans prefer potential primary challengers to their representative (and thus answer the my representative question with a “no”), but that they will return to the fold once primary season is over. Alternatively, the data could be consistent with the claim that we are approaching an election where anti-incumbency sentiment could work against _both_ Democratic and Republican incumbents. Potentially further evidence in this regard is the fact that poll also reports that while 54% of respondents believe most Democratic members of Congress do not deserve to be re-elected, 56% believe most _Republican_ members of Congress do not deserve to be re-elected.

Of course, if Abramowitz is correct that the only thing that matters in Congressional elections is presidential approval rate, then I suppose we can safely ignore these figures. I guess I would feel more confident doing so if we could find elections where similar proportions of the population were dissatisfied with their own representative – thus undercutting the micro-level mechanism Bartels and Fenno suggest is at play here – and we still found only candidates from the president’s party being punished as “incumbents”. Any data out there?