If Voters Hate Congress So Much, Then Why Hasn’t Any Incumbent Lost a Primary?

Congressional approval is at 11 percent. And voters are gluttons for punishment.

Senate Republican Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) votes in the state Republican primary May 20, 2014 in Louisville, Kentucky.
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Peter Bell and Brian Resnick
May 21, 2014, 8:14 a.m.

Amer­ic­ans might be mad as hell at Con­gress — but they’re go­ing to keep tak­ing it.

Con­sider these two facts:

1: Con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al is at 11 per­cent, as meas­ured by the latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll.

2: Ex­actly zero in­cum­bent can­did­ates — for the Sen­ate or House — have lost a primary race in this midterm cycle. In Tues­day’s con­gres­sion­al primar­ies, in­cum­bents went 45 for 45, and es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans won easy vic­tor­ies against their tea-party rivals. Des­pite how much voters say they hate the cur­rent Con­gress, they still like them bet­ter than their primary chal­lengers.

Now, these are just primary elec­tions. Come Novem­ber, the in­cum­bents could lose out to the oth­er party. That’s es­pe­cially true for Sen­ate Demo­crats. As Charlie Cook has ex­plained, “A sur­vey of the na­tion­al land­scape finds that open Demo­crat­ic seats in South Dakota and, to a less­er ex­tent, West Vir­gin­ia will be ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for the party to hold.”

So what gives with these primary res­ults?

In­cum­bent reelec­tion rates are rarely re­spons­ive to pub­lic opin­ion of Con­gress. Even in years when con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al tanks, in­cum­bent turnover holds steady.

For one, over­all con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al num­bers don’t ex­tra­pol­ate well. Voters elect solely their own rep­res­ent­at­ives, and their bal­lots aren’t ne­ces­sar­ily a ref­er­en­dum on the en­tire le­gis­lat­ive body. Last May, when con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al was at 13 per­cent, Gal­lup found about 46 per­cent ap­proved of the job their rep­res­ent­at­ive was do­ing. This April, the AP asked a sim­il­ar ques­tion, and found that while just 16 per­cent ap­proved of Con­gress, 39 per­cent said they would like to see their mem­ber reelec­ted. Of those who are most polit­ic­ally en­gaged, that fig­ure was 44 per­cent.

Also, in re­cent years dis­tricts have be­come “safer” for polit­ic­al parties due to re­dis­trict­ing, as you can see in the slid­ing graph­ic to the right.

What’s be­com­ing ap­par­ent now is that even the his­tor­ic­ally low ap­prov­al of Con­gress dur­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down — Gal­lup had it as low as 9 per­cent — can’t shake this in­cum­bent ad­vant­age. House reelec­tion rates, in most cycles, are high­er than 90 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to Open­Secrets. For the Sen­ate, those num­bers are only slightly lower.

The Sen­ate may very well flip to the Re­pub­lic­ans, over a hand­ful of seats, but the ma­jor­ity of the faces in the cham­ber will be the same.

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