Will 2012 Be an Anti-Incumbent Year?

Dec 10 '11

“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.