2010 Was a Pretty Good Year for Incumbents After All

Nov 10 '10

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”:https://themonkeycage.local/2010/05/matt_miller_is_my_new_favorite.html:

bq. 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”:https://themonkeycage.local/2010/06/feel_the_anger_people.html that among House incumbents running for the general election, 87% would win. Commenter treetop “noted”:https://themonkeycage.local/2010/11/the_forecasts_and_the_outcome.html#comment-48827 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”:http://www.brendan-nyhan.com/blog/2010/10/did-the-tea-party-weaken-gop-candidate-quality.html, _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.