Monday, September 18, 2006

An Anti-Incumbent Election? This Year? Of Course Not

By Stuart Rothenberg

Over the past year or so, I’ve heard more than a few people talking about 2006 as an anti-incumbent election. Well, those people are wrong. We are not going to have an anti-incumbent election in November. We are going to have an anti-Bush election.

First, let’s get our terms straight. If “anti-incumbent election” means anything, it is that voters are so dissatisfied with the status quo that they vote against all incumbents, regardless of party. The term highlights one, and only one, quality of embattled candidates: their incumbency.

This kind of election is not about party or ideology or how Members voted on a particular piece of legislation. If it were about any of those things, it wouldn’t simply be an “anti-incumbent” election. An anti-incumbent election is a referendum on the “ins,” and voters, for whatever reasons, are so unhappy with the performance of those “ins” — all the “ins” — that they throw them out. All of them.

I’m sure 2006 won’t be an anti-incumbent election, for two very different reasons.

First, history strongly suggests — and “suggests” actually is far too mild a word — that we don’t have anti-incumbent elections in this country. I’m not saying that we’ve never had one or that we never will have one, but I’m hard-pressed to identify one during the past 50 years.

Over the past 26 Congressional elections, going back to 1954, there have been only three elections when at least a half-dozen incumbents of both parties were defeated — 1956, 1990 and 1992, according to “Vital Statistics on Congress, 2001-02,” edited by Norman Ornstein, Thomas Mann and Michael Malbin.

By contrast, we have had eight elections in which one party knocked off at least 20 of the opponent’s incumbents and lost fewer than a half-dozen of its own.

Virtually all midterm elections are a referendum on the party of the president, so it isn’t surprising that when a political wave hits, it damages one party much more heavily than it does the other.

The worst bipartisan election since the mid-1950s was in 1992, when a total of 24 sitting House Members — 16 Republicans and eight Democrats — were defeated. While there was a strong anti-Washington, D.C., mood developing in this country at that time, that year also was a redistricting election in which some incumbents didn’t possess the normal advantages of incumbency. That fact undoubtedly explains so many incumbent losses.

Otherwise, over the past 50 years, the closest we’ve come to an anti-incumbent election was in 1990, when six Democrats and nine Republicans lost in the general election, and in 1978, when 14 Democrats and five Republicans were defeated that November.

Second, there is very little evidence that the environment in the current cycle is heavily stacked against incumbents in general, even though a handful have been defeated for renomination.

Looking toward November, there is no indication that the two major parties both are facing significant incumbent losses. I suppose Democrats could lose an incumbent or two if things go poorly for them, but right now there isn’t a single Democratic seat that ranks in the 25 most vulnerable House seats in the country.

Not one. Not a single one. The vulnerability is entirely on one side of the partisan aisle.

How could we possibly be having an anti-incumbent election if one party loses 10, 15 or even 20 incumbents and the other party loses none, or one or two?

Instead, what is developing is a classic political wave of voter dissatisfaction about the direction of the nation and the performance of the president. Congressional candidates from the president’s party are about to bear the brunt of voter dissatisfaction, because President Bush isn’t on the ballot.

Republican incumbents are in trouble not because they are incumbents, but because they are Republicans.

This election isn’t really about agendas. Sure, Democrats have something called their “New Direction,” but most voters aren’t regarding November primarily as a choice between two visions or two ideologies. No, it’s about sending a message to the president and to Congress that they aren’t happy — specifically with the Iraq War, but more generally as well.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman is quite correct when he says Republicans will do better when the election is a choice rather than a referendum. Unfortunately for him, that’s not likely to happen until 2008.

So what about the defeats of Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), Reps. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) and Joe Schwarz (R-Mich.), and even Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski (R)? The answer is simple. Each lost for specific reasons, not because of a trend. It isn’t their incumbency that unites them. They lost because of their own voting records and style.

While it is true that voters are not particularly impressed with Congress in general or either of the two major parties, the midterm elections have developed into a referendum on the president. Republicans may well succeed in minimizing the damage in November by localizing elections and re-electing incumbents, but there is no indication that voters will send a message of dissatisfaction with all incumbents in the fall.

That means that all but a handful of Democratic House incumbents can rest easy.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 14, 2006. Copyright 2006 Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.