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Some story lines never go away.
This year, once again, there is buzz that 2008 might be an anti-incumbent election that will sweep out sitting House Members of both parties. National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) has been making that case for months, and more than a few journalists and talking heads have picked it up as well.
A little more than a year ago in this space (“An Anti-Incumbent Election? This Year? Of Course Not,” Sept. 14, 2006), I argued that 2006 would be an anti-Republican, not an anti-incumbent, year. I never thought that we’d be hearing the same anti-incumbent argument so soon. It’s like a bad penny that keeps turning up.
According to “Vital Statistics on American Politics, 2007-2008,” over the past 27 elections, dating back to 1954, there have been 11 or 12 partisan blowouts (depending on how you classify 1984), where one party or the other has suffered big losses and the other party had few or no incumbent defeats.
Last year’s election, when 22 GOP House incumbents were defeated without a single Democratic casualty, is a perfect example. The 1960, 1964 and 1996 elections, to cite three cases, produced similar partisan waves.
In eight elections since 1954, there were small, single-digit incumbent losses. They certainly were not “anti-incumbent” elections. In 2000, for example, six incumbents were defeated in November. By any definition, that was a status-quo election, not an anti-incumbent anything.
That leaves seven of the 27 elections that were neither blowouts nor status-quo contests. Were any of them “anti-incumbent” elections? Maybe, but probably not.
Of those, the worst year for incumbents was in 1992, when a total of 24 House incumbents — 16 Democrats and eight Republicans — lost to challengers. Cole, who served as NRCC executive director back then, has cited the ’92 elections as an example of a year when voters directed their anger at incumbents of both parties (and ousted a sitting president).
Twenty-four House incumbents going down to defeat may well qualify as an anti- incumbent election in the abstract, but, alas, it’s more complicated than that. The devil is in the details.
Large numbers of incumbents lost that year because of scandals and redistricting, not because voters across the country were so angry with Capitol Hill or with politicians in general that they simply voted against incumbents, regardless of party. The 1992 CQ Almanac did a wonderful job documenting this in its end-of-the-year rehashing of the election results.
“Voter discontent and redistricting did take a toll on members who sought re-election, but the much-discussed possibility of an Election Day cyclone of anti-incumbent sentiment failed to materialize Nov. 3,” the almanac’s authors wrote.
Some incumbents lost because their districts had been redrawn to include more opposition partisans who voted primarily because of party. Others lost because they bounced checks on the House bank or were under indictment. Some lost because of the top of the ticket. Few, if any, lost merely because they were incumbent officeholders.