On Anti-Incumbency

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Considering the huge number of races today and the inevitable search for a narrative to tie them together, it’s worth addressing the dominant theme of the 2010 cycle so far: Anti-incumbency.

Staggering poll numbers might tell us something about anger or unease in the electorate. But the seemingly pervasive mood is unlikely to put a big dent in the extraordinary level at which incumbents are re-nominated and re-elected. John Sides:

Perhaps the best evidence is the predicted reelection rate I calculated based on the 1992-2008 data, plugging in the most recent Gallup poll, in which a record 40% declared that their member did not deserve reelection. What is the predicted incumbent reelection rate?

Mike Allen points out that if Blanche Lincoln is defeated in today’s runoff against Bill Halter, she would become the third sitting Senator to fail to win renomination this year, the most since 1980 (four). Ezra Klein argues that if just three or four Senators getting bumped off in primaries makes for a landmark year, then it’s a testament to establishment security not anti-incumbent fervor. Jonathan Bernstein isn’t so sure:

Hmmm…that’s three out of around 33, 34, or maybe 35, so lets call it 9%.  Moreover, in this cycle in particular a whole bunch of Senators have retired, so we’re talking now about (if I’ve counted correctly) only 26 Senators running for re-election.  Two have lost.  The third is in deep trouble today.  Two more — Bennet in Colorado and McCain in Arizona — face serious challenges.  So if Lincoln does lose today, we’re already over 10%, and it could go as high as 23%.  Is that a lot?  It seems like a lot to me…I suspect that it will seem like a lot to Senators in the future who have to choose whether to antagonize their own party activists or swing voters.

There’s not really one definitive answer. The mood in this cycle is unusual, with new forces for ideological purism, widespread economic angst and a rapidly changing role for the federal government stirring the waters. But it’s worth keeping in mind tomorrow as A1 ledes and cable chyrons pack results into neat little packages that roughly 90% of incumbents will likely be keeping their jobs come November.