Commentary Magazine


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It’s Not Anti-Incumbent

The numbers tell the story: Overwhelmingly unfavorable views of Congress, large majorities believing America is on the wrong track, low consumer confidence. We also know that the general reputation of the Republican party remains problematic; 26 percent of all adults say they are Republican, nearly eight points lower than the number who claim to be Democrats (among registered and likely voters, the numbers are significantly better, 31.8 percent Republican to) 35 percent Democrat. And we know that the latest Gallup report says only 28 percent of the public thinks incumbents in Congress should be reelected, the lowest number ever recorded, with only 49 percent saying their incumbent Congressman should be returned to Washington. (Classically, Congress as an entity gets low marks from voters while their own members of Congress get substantially higher marks; this is true here too, but a poll number under 50 percent in this category is beyond disastrous.)

All this would suggest the November 2010 election should be a Throw-the-Bums-Out moment, in which every incumbent is in danger of being hauled off by an angry populace to the hangman’s noose.

But that is not, it seems, the way things are going. It appears, rather, that absent a dramatic turn in the country’s mood and a distinct sense among voters that their lives and the nation’s prospects are distinctly improving, the overwhelming weight of public dissatisfaction is going to fall on Democrats.

In part that’s because of Democratic success in the two most recent elections taking seats away from the GOP. According to the district-by-district analysis of Charlie Cook, “There are currently 8 Democratic-leaning districts represented by Republicans and 69 Republican-leaning districts represented by Democrats, for a total of 77 out of 435 Representatives.” Republicans need to take 40 seats away from Democrats to take control of the House once again. Cook’s number here tells the tale; the GOP only needs to win back two-thirds of those Republican districts, and that seems not only possible but likely. The question now is how much better they might do. For his part, Dick Morris says as few other analysts do that the overall polling picture means Republicans are likely to take control of the Senate as well by winning 10 seats, which is what they’d need, though the numbers at present suggest a seven-seat pickup.

And, as Jen just noted, then there’s this from Gallup: “Americans’ favorable rating of the Democratic Party dropped to 41% in a late March USA Today/Gallup poll, the lowest point in the 18-year history of this measure. Favorable impressions of the Republican Party are now at 42%, thus closing the gap between the two parties’ images that has prevailed for the past four years.” It’s hard to overstate the immediate political meaning of this report. In early September 2009, 51 percent of those polled had a favorable view of the Democratic party, with the GOP receiving a 34 percent favorability rating — a gap of 17 percent. That is a colossal change, and it indicates that independent voters are not only in the midst of rethinking their recent shift toward the Democrats but that the conduct of the Democrats in the Age of Obama is making Republicans look better by contrast.

So when you hear talk about anti-incumbent fever from the mainstream media, feel free right now to substitute the word “Democrat” for the word “incumbent.”