Why an ‘Anti-Incumbent’ Election Might Be Impossible

Fewer people than ever think their member of Congress deserves reelection — but more still want them back in 2015 than not.

The early morning sun begins to rise behind the U.S. Capitol on December 17, 2010 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Scott Bland
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Scott Bland
Jan. 24, 2014, 8:17 a.m.

Amer­ic­ans really dis­ap­prove of Con­gress. By sev­er­al dif­fer­ent met­rics, they dis­ap­prove more than ever. But new data from Gal­lup show that more people still want to keep their own mem­ber of Con­gress in of­fice, demon­strat­ing just how dif­fi­cult it might be to have a true cross-party, anti-in­cum­bent wave elec­tion.

Ap­prov­al of Con­gress is down to 13 per­cent in Janu­ary, near its low­est point ever. And al­though a re­cord-low 17 per­cent of voters say “most mem­bers of Con­gress de­serve reeelec­tion,” 46 per­cent still be­lieve their own mem­ber of Con­gress de­serves an­oth­er term in Wash­ing­ton.

That is the low­est level Gal­lup has found in 22 years of ask­ing that ques­tion. But “re­cord low” does not mean “dis­astrous.” If this is what a bad en­vir­on­ment looks like, law­makers have it aw­fully good.

It is still 8 points clear of the 38 per­cent of voters who say their mem­ber doesn’t de­serve an­oth­er two years.

Mean­while, the “reelect your mem­ber” num­ber syncs with the ups and downs of people’s will­ing­ness to reelect most num­bers — but at 17 per­cent, that fig­ure can’t go much lower. (Neither can con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al, an­oth­er meas­ure that moves up and down at a sim­il­ar pace.) Un­less that re­la­tion­ship frays, 46 per­cent of people want­ing to reelect their mem­ber may be as low as Amer­ica goes. Plus, meas­ur­ing gen­er­ic sup­port like this typ­ic­ally un­der­states how well in­cum­bents do when matched against chal­lengers who in­ev­it­ably have some flaws.

As Gal­lup notes, “Res­ults like these have pres­aged sig­ni­fic­ant turnover in Con­gress, such as in 1994, 2006, and 2010,” and we could well be in for an­oth­er year like those. But those years were more anti-ma­jor­ity than anti-in­cum­bent: In all three of those midterm elec­tions, voters re­belled against the party con­trolling Con­gress and flipped scores of House seats in the oth­er dir­ec­tion. This year, Con­gress is di­vided, and House dis­tricts are sor­ted to the point where there isn’t too much room for the parties to take new dis­tricts. And even in those tu­mul­tu­ous years, or at the height of the wide­spread House bank­ing scan­dal in 1992, reelec­tion rates nev­er dipped be­low 85 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Re­spons­ive Polit­ics.

And on top of that, des­pite a very rough year for con­gres­sion­al rat­ings, more people than not still want their mem­ber back in 2015.

It’s al­most im­possible for polls to show more un­hap­pi­ness with Con­gress, but nearly half of Amer­ic­ans want to re­hire their rep­res­ent­at­ive later this year. It’s one key reas­on why an anti-in­cum­bent elec­tion hit­ting both parties is so un­likely.

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