Myths of midterms

Busy day, so you’re not going to get a lot of originality or comment, but I cannot resist “myths about” pieces.  Especially when they are written by Political Scientists I know and respect.  Here’s Alan Abramowitz and Norm Ornstein on myths about the midterm election.  There’s 5– I like #2 best:

2. It’s an anti-incumbent year.

We hear this almost every time midterm elections come along at a time of widespread voter discontent. But even when voters seem very unhappy, the vast majority of incumbents in both parties are reelected. Despite Congress’s low approval ratings this year, only a handful of incumbents have lost their primaries, and there were peculiar reasons for several of those defeats. While a second round of incumbents is likely to lose seats in November, it is unlikely that more than 10 percent of lawmakers will be ousted. Even in 1974, which was the worst midterm for incumbents in the past 50 years, 87.7 percent of Congress won reelection. Voters are highly selective in voting out incumbents in the general election — even when polls suggest that they are eager to boot all the rascals and clean house, they rarely follow through.

The incumbents who do lose in a given midterm tend to come overwhelmingly from the president’s party. In 1994, during Clinton’s presidency, only Democratic incumbents lost; in 2006, during George W. Bush’s second term, only Republican incumbents lost. This year it is likely that almost all of the incumbent casualties will be Democrats.

Good point.  It’s almost never truly an “anti-incumbent” year but anti-incumbent of one particular party.  Even then, it is easy to overstate.  The vast majority of Democratic incumbents will win re-election.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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