Feb. 8, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Let’s Poke Holes in the ‘Anti-Incumbent’ Hype

Here Are the Facts: So Far This Cycle, 98 Percent of Congressional Incumbents Have Been Renominated

My heart sank when I saw my friend Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post write about this cycle’s elections and whether they really deserved the “anti-incumbent” moniker that they have received. Damn it, I thought, there goes another half-written column that I have to toss into the trash.

But Chris encouraged me to offer my take, even though he did a good job dissecting the issue.

The narrative that this is an anti-incumbent political year is already well-established, and only a fool would fight it. So here goes. While there is some truth to the storyline, the narrative being pounded into your head daily on television and in print is clearly misleading.

There are plenty of data showing that voters distrust politicians, are unhappy with the direction of the country, have a low opinion of Washington institutions and officeholders, and are sympathetic to “outsider” candidates preaching change.

Whether you look at recent polling by ABC News/Washington Post (June 3-6), the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (March 18-21), CBS News (May 20-24) or NBC News/Wall Street Journal (May 6-10), you will see voter anger and dissatisfaction, with voters often less supportive of incumbents. And this same message is showing up in state-level and district-level data, as well.

But this mood has not resulted in voters engaging in a scorched-earth policy against incumbents or in most “establishment” candidates falling in primaries. It simply hasn’t happened.

Incumbents have lost, and so have some “establishment” candidates. But the results have many explanations, most of which have nothing to do with incumbency. Alvin Greene’s victory in the South Carolina Democratic Senate primary ought to be proof of that. (Surprisingly, I haven’t yet heard anyone say he won because he was the ultimate “outsider.”)

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) was denied access to the primary ballot by conservatives angry over one of his votes in particular. He may well have won renomination (and subsequently re-election) if he had made the ballot, but an odd nominating system that exaggerates the power of a relative few activists (conservative activists in this case) caused his defeat.

Like Bennett, Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), who is expected to lose a runoff, has aroused opposition on his political right for selected votes. Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan (W.Va.) lost his primary because of ethics problems.

Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Rep. Parker Griffith (R-Ala.) lost their respective primaries not because they are incumbents, but because they are party-switchers. Party-switchers often have problems winning primaries in their new parties because they were once viewed as political enemies and voters in their new party have trouble embracing them. Their losses had nothing to do with their incumbency. Nothing.

Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) lost renomination because of scandals and incompetence, not the general mood of voters.

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