Election 2014

Let's Stop Kidding Ourselves: 90 Percent of Congressional Incumbents Will Win Re-election

All signs tell us that incumbents should be grabbed by their lapels and shoved to the curb-but most won't be.


Tony Webster/Wikimedia

Even in the most catastrophic year for congressional incumbents, 90 percent of them will win re-election—and most of them will do so rather easily. Many of them, in fact, won't even have to run a campaign.

This fact might be somewhat obscured lately, what with all the talk of the impending populist insurrection. "Anti-incumbent wave building," says The Detroit News. "Eric Cantor's surprise defeat is a warning to all Republicans," says Slate. "Eric Cantor's Loss Was Like an Earthquake" says FiveThirtyEight. Ron Fournier of the National Journal writes, "Elites Beware: Eric Cantor's Defeat May Signal a Populist Revolution." And so it goes and goes.

Fournier, in fact, discovers that Americans aren't exceptionally fond of big banks, big business, or big government—which would have been an intriguing piece of information in 2009, when populist right-wing anger flooded out into the open. Since then, though, the revolution has been on a slow boil. That doesn't mean the anger isn't real. It doesn't mean that the distrust won't grow. And it doesn't mean there won't be change. It just means we rarely, if ever, blame our own. In 2010, a year that saw one of the lowest re-election rates in decades after an eruption of anti-D.C. populism, 9 in 10 House incumbents won their races. After 2012, the Bloomberg Government Barometer found that 9 in 10 members of the House and Senate won their races as well.

And this year, all signs tell us that incumbents should be grabbed by their lapels and shoved to the curb. Per Gallup:

1) Most of us believe that the country is headed the wrong way. Today only 23 percent of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going, roughly equivalent to the 22 percent we saw during the 2010 elections and the 24 percent before the 1982 elections.

2) Most of us detest Congress. According to Gallup, it has a 16 percent approval rating, on pace to be the lowest in a midterm election year since Gallup first began measuring this number in 1974. RealClearPolitics puts the average at 13 percent.

3) Most of us hate our own representative slightly more than usual. Only 46 percent of Americans now claim —and we should stress "claim"—that their own representative deserves re-election.

And of course, "deserve" has absolutely nothing to do with Washington. Though numbers are hard to come by, it is reasonable to assert that Americans are less apt to renew their cellphone plans, credit cards, and gym memberships than they are to re-elect their politicians. In most districts, Americans discard trends, pop stars, and actors/actresses with a far higher frequency than they do senators. A more accurate—or perhaps a less imperfect—method of measuring congressional approval ratings would be to compile the approval ratings of all 435 representatives and calculate the average. The present method of polling basically asks voters: What do you think of everyone else's stupid choices? A question rigged to bring you a preposterously low and useless number in an era of heightened partisan warfare.

With that said, I would contend that creating more competitive races in the general elections is an awfully overrated idea. Districts are now generally represented by people who, broadly speaking, reflect the attitudes and aspirations of those who inhabit their districts. This is far more desirable than creating hundreds of battleground districts across the country, which would only further politicize American life. What should be concerning to populists is the fact that within the primary system, the place where genuine change can be made, incumbents lose even more rarely. Since 1968, only 130 representatives and 24 senators have lost primary contests. Since 2008, only 16 Republicans have lost in nearly a thousand races.

So in some ways, Cantor's loss, though dramatic and unprecedented, may be less surprising than the ousting of a backbencher who meticulously tends to his district and avoids the controversy that comes with the national spotlight. It showed us that money can't buy democracy, that anyone can be booted. But congressmen who take care of the little things and bring home the pork are elected in perpetuity. Perhaps there is something positive to be said for the stability of it all. Either way, there is little repercussion for failure, mostly because we never blame our own. And for the most part, we won't blame our own in 2014, either.

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  1. I’d like to know what Canada’s numbers are. I bet they are a lot lower and that’s a big advantage to us.

    1. What numbers?

  2. Tell me about it david. “Libertarians” keep voting for abortion prohibitionists and gay marriage bigots and make excuses for right wing wars and *THEN* bitch about how the government isn’t limited. Is that cognitive dissonance or something else? Please define. Thanks,

    1. I think many on here would have supported your parents’ decision to have an abortion as well as their right to “gay” marriage.

      And I thought the term was same-sex marriage.

      In the US, abortion is still legal. And in most states, same-sex marriage is not.

      Of course, eliminating the income tax takes care of one of the core arguments for needing to expand the definition of marriage: filing jointly.

      The “wars” reference is a wishful thinking fallacy. Good luck with that.

    2. “Make excuses for right-wing wars”? You mean like liberals do for Obama and his policies on Syria and Libya and his drone assassination program?

      I’d ask if you understand the term cognitive dissonance, but since you willingly (and likely unironically) self-identify as an American socialist, clearly you do not.

      1. Ironically enough, the socialists, communists, and general malcontents who have decided they hate America due to its “unfairness”, fail to realize that the nation they hate is the ONLY nation in the history of this little rock that was founded and built on fairness. No nation in history as afforded more opportunity to more of its citizens-regardless of their class, gender, race, or economic background, than this one. And they hate that. Some people just have to have a windmill to joust.

    3. “make excuses for right wing wars.”

      Where in the world have they done that?

      Man. A socialist AND a liar.

      I guess they go hand in hand.

    4. dude be trollin’, fuck off chait.

  3. Explanation:

    Congressman A: So “B”, what you need to deliver to the folks back home to get re-elected?
    Congressman B: I need PorkX, what you need?
    A: I need PorkZ.
    B: Sounds good, mum’s the word, ok?
    A: Ok, enjoy your vacation.

  4. AS, without the right to continue living, other rights mean nothing.

  5. I’m surprised that anyone is surprised at the low turnover rate of congressmen. Consider:

    – It doesn’t matter how good a new face might be, if that new face cannot win a general election
    – It doesn’t matter how good a new face might be, if the congressional body he or she is elected to is still controlled by assholes.
    – Specifically, in this particular year, I think lots of people are less concerned about the best candidate for Senate and more concerned about handing Harry Reid his ass in a basket.
    – primary races open for filing with little to no media attention, occur for two short weeks, and occur long before current congressmen make those final moves in congress that say, “I need to be replaced”
    – Our election system is gamed toward R vs. D, which often means “giant douche vs. turd sandwich” (thank you, South Park), and a third party candidate almost always means an R or D (usually D) wins by diluted vote – and this means that a majority of people don’t get the candidate they want or will settle for.
    – And a question, If Libertarians are serious about winning elections, why is there no under the table collusion with a sure-to-lose party, i.e. In a heavily blue district, why is there no unofficial agreement between R and L that R will not file a candidate, so L has a chance in hell of beating the D?

    1. To your last point, it’s because a lot of the Republicans who run in blue districts hate libertarians every bit as much as they do liberals and would never make a deal. A lot of them are just going for a moral victory…not a win.

    2. Actually, should have phrased that more accurately as “moral” victory, since GOP politicians have no more to do with morality than any other politician.

      1. This

  6. Let’s Stop Kidding Ourselves; Americans Love Their Politicians

  7. Not necessarily a surprise. People shout things like “throw the bums out!”-but the bum in question is always the other guy. THEIR guy is OK. So we get stuck with the same partisan hacks, doing the same partisan stuff, and we get nowhere. On the rare occasion a viable alternative comes along, both parties move to squash it so as to maintain the status quo-and their jobs.

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  9. Article claim: “Districts are now generally represented by people who, broadly speaking, reflect the attitudes and aspirations of those who inhabit their districts.”

    Number of millionaires serving in Congress out of 534 in 2012: 268

    Percentage of millionaire representation in Congress: over half.

    Percentage of millionaires in the population: about 1.4%.

    Multiple of overrepresentation for millionaires in Congress: 36x.

    Degree of surprise this retarded claim appears on a pet website of heavily-subsidized oil billionaires: zero

    Conclusion: Ha ha.

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