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Beware ‘Anti-Incumbent’ Election Hysteria

Stu Rothenberg writes about anti-incumbency in the wake of Eric Cantor's defeat. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Stu Rothenberg writes about anti-incumbency in the wake of Eric Cantor's defeat. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia is sure to lead to another round of speculation that the 2014 midterms might not produce a partisan-wave election, but rather one where large numbers of incumbents from both parties are sent packing by voters.  

In fact, I recently heard one of the best political observers around suggesting that 2014 “might be like 1992, 1978,” election years when incumbents “from both parties went down in surprising fashion.”  

I have written about anti-incumbent warnings before, but I hope to try to nip the anti-incumbent narrative in the bud this cycle — right now, in fact, before it spreads. I admit: I’m not optimistic. First, the obvious caveat: I’ve seen plenty of odd political developments over the past 34 years I have been in Washington, D.C., so I try not to rule out any development, no matter how unusual.  

But I have never witnessed an anti-incumbent election — where incumbency was enough in itself to cause large numbers of members of Congress from both parties to lose general elections. And I’m skeptical that we are about to have one, especially given the current polarized and ideological political environment. The paucity of competitive House districts only adds to the unlikelihood of an “anti-incumbent” election.  

Neither of the two examples I saw mentioned recently, 1978 and 1992, fits neatly (or otherwise) into the anti-incumbent category, nor is either election a model for 2014.  

The alleged 1992 analogy is inappropriate in many ways. Unlike 2014, 1992 was a presidential year, and presidential election years often have different dynamics from midterms. Just as important, the 1992 presidential race included three major candidates, one of whom was running against the two parties. That created a unique dynamic that we don’t see this cycle.  

House Democrats suffered more than twice as many incumbent defeats as House Republicans in 1992 — 17 compared to 7 — and the modest number of incumbent defeats led the 1992 CQ Almanac to note, “the much-discussed possibility of an Election Day cyclone of anti-incumbent sentiment failed to materialize.”  

The CQ annual also observed, “By far the most common symptom afflicting the 24 incumbents who lost Nov. 3 was unfavorable publicity over ethically questionable behavior,” particularly overdrawn checks at the House bank.  

Even more important, 1992 was a post-redistricting cycle, and plenty of incumbents from both parties found themselves running in redrawn districts with unfamiliar constituents. For example, Ohio Republican Bob McEwen lost in the general election in a squeaker to Democrat Ted Strickland, but if you know the full story, it’s impossible to see that loss as a sign of anti-incumbent anger.  

McEwen and fellow Rep. Clarence Miller, R-Ohio, were thrown together in a redrawn district, and McEwen won the nomination by a few hundred votes. The bitterness of that primary, combined with the new district lines, helped Strickland eke out a narrow win. The outcome reflected the divided GOP and the new lines, not an “anti-incumbent” mood.  

Also in 1992, redistricting forced former Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino, R-Calif., to run against fellow GOP incumbent Rep. Elton Gallegly, or in a new district, against mega-wealthy moderate Republican Michael Huffington. He chose the latter alternative but got buried in the primary by Huffington’s spending and attacks. Again, the details suggest that a simple “anti-incumbent” explanation is far too simple.  

There are plenty of other examples, but many of them rest, to some extent, on new lines, ethics or the partisan/ideological realigning of seats.  

There is even less of a reason to regard 1978 as an anti-incumbent election. Total incumbent defeats were relatively modest — only 19 incumbents went down to defeat, 14 Democrats and a mere five Republicans — and the partisan shape of those losses suggests a mildly anti-Democratic election, not voters punishing incumbents regardless of party.  

Two of the Republicans who lost had “special circumstances,” as did a few Democrats.  

Rep. John Cunningham, R-Wash., had won a special election in a heavily Democratic district, and had little hope of surviving in 1978, while Rep. Herbert Burke, R-Fla., lost because he was charged with intoxication, resisting arrest and witness tampering earlier in the year.  

Nobody likes Congress, but that doesn’t mean many voters will vote against incumbents. Republican voters see Democrats (President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in particular) as the problem, while Democrats blame House Republicans and the tea party.  

And yet, for an “anti-incumbent” election to occur, Democratic voters would have to vote against Democratic nominees and Republican voters would have to vote against GOP nominees. That happens only in the rarest of cases.  

Some truly independent voters may vote against officeholders simply because of their incumbency, but more will see the midterm election as others have — as an opportunity to express their dissatisfaction by “sending a message” to the president by voting against his party’s nominees, whether they are incumbents, challengers or open seat hopefuls.  

The logic of the anti-incumbent argument follows from Congress’ low standing and the public’s dissatisfaction with our political leaders. But most voters aren’t really against politicians. They are against the other party’s politicians.