Throw the bums out? Maybe. Maybe not.

It’s no surprise that the dominant story these days is Presidential politics.  Between the Ames straw poll and Obama’s full-campaign-mode bus tour, the race for the White House in 2012 has been fully joined on both sides.

With all eyes on the Presidential race, the question of what happens to the House and Senate is almost an afterthought despite being just as important in terms of what happens with spending, the debt, and the economy.

Where there has been coverage of Congressional campaigns over the past few weeks, an interesting theme is developing: predictions that an “anti-incumbent wave” will cost members of both parties their seats.  The narrative goes something like this:

Voters are fed up with what’s going on in Washington.  They see brinksmanship on a government shutdown and then brinksmanship on the debt ceiling as signs that their elected representatives are no longer doing their jobs and want change.  The classic paradigm of voters wanting incumbents voted out, but no their incumbent, has broken down and now voters are ready to send their own Member packing.

The implication of this idea is that, regardless of the outcome of the Presidential race, Democrats may do better than expected in the House because there are more Republican incumbents to suffer voters’ wrath.  The immediate question that occurred to us is whether there is any evidence that this sort of thing might happen, or is it just a case of Democratic-aligned journalists whistling past the graveyard?

First let’s look at the evidence:

  • Congress’s job approval ratings are at their lowest point in the last six years with 13% approving and 84% disapproving according to the most recent Gallup poll.
  • In a recent CNN poll only 45% of Americans said that their Congressman deserved re-election compared to 48% who said they did not.
    • As is often the case, a much lower number (23%) said most members of Congress deserved re-election while almost three in four (72%) said they did not.

Those numbers are bad for Congress.  In fact, they are worse than numbers seen before any of the last three “wave” elections or those seen before 1994’s massive turnover in the House.  But they’re not such outliers that we can’t give them some context.

The table below shows Congressional job, approval-own incumbent re-elect, and the percentage of incumbents of each party who lost general elections for the elections in 2010, 2008, 2006, and 1994.

Year Own incumbent deserves re-election Congressional approval GOP incumbents defeated in general election Dem incumbents defeated in general election
2010 51% 21% 2 52
2008 60% 17% 14 5
2006 54% 26% 22 0
1994 54% 23% 0 34

As you look at this table, it is important to understand what we’re showing and what we’re not.  We’re purposefully ignoring primary election losses—they matter to incumbents but it won’t help Democrats much if 2012 is like 2010 where a number of Republican incumbents lost primaries to candidates who went on to win the General Election.  We’re also purposefully ignoring races for open seats since there was no incumbent to be influenced by an anti-incumbent mood.

What we see in this table is that despite Congress getting poor marks from the American people before each election, there’s just not a case where that anger was taken out on incumbents of both parties equally:

  • In the earliest two “wave” elections in the table, exactly zero incumbents from the party that gained power lost General Elections.
  • In 2008 a few Democrats did lose seats but two of those were cases where Republicans regained seats lost due to scandal in 2006, one was a reversal of a special election result from just months earlier, and one was lost by a Democratic incumbent under federal indictment.
  • In 2010, the only two Republican incumbents to lose in the General Election were the winner of a “scandal seat” from 2008 and another winner of a special election months earlier.

So to return to our initial question, should Democrats take solace in an anti-incumbent mood and the hope that voters will vote out incumbents of bother parties in large numbers to the benefit of the Democratic minority?  The evidence suggests that they shouldn’t.

While the Congressional approval and own-incumbent re-elect numbers are indeed “historic lows” as much of the reporting emphasizes, they are not substantially lower than previous “wave” elections.  Congressional approval is within ten points of where it stood before the last two elections and exactly ten points lower than the 1994 mark.  The own-incumbent re-elect score has dipped below 50%, but it is still within ten points of where it stood in 1994, 2006, and 2008.

Just because something hasn’t happened before doesn’t mean it can’t happen.  But in trying to predict what might happen in 2012, we’re better served by looking at the data from previous elections than we are imagining some kind of outlier electoral event that might benefit Democrats.