Despite a stunningly low congressional approval rating and many calls to “throw all the bums out,” we don’t have anti-incumbent elections in the United States. This year’s House elections were just another example.
There are wave elections, in which voters take out their frustrations on one party in a lopsided way. But rarely, if ever, are Democratic and Republican incumbents punished in large and equal numbers. My colleague Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report often writes about this (as he did in these columns from 2007 and 2014).
This cycle, 11 House Democrats lost re-election, assuming that Republican Martha McSally’s narrow margin over Democratic Rep. Rob Barber holds up after a recount in Arizona’s 2nd District. Just two Republican incumbents lost. Republicans may have been able to hold their incumbent losses to zero if Reps. Lee Terry of Nebraska and Steve Southerland of Florida had avoided self-inflicted wounds regarding the government shutdown and lingerie parties.
Dig deeper, and you’ll find even more evidence of an anti-Democratic Party election that didn’t affect Republican incumbents equally.
With help from a spreadsheet put together by David Wasserman, Loren Fulton and Ashton Barry, all of the Cook Political Report, I found that six Republican incumbents won re-election with 55 percent of the vote or less. By contrast, 32 Democratic incumbents won with such a narrow majority. In 2012, 15 Democratic incumbents and 32 Republican incumbents won re-election with 55 percent or less.
Because election percentage can distort the margin of victory, the latter is also worth examination.
This cycle, 13 Democratic incumbents won re-election by less than 5 percentage points. No winning GOP incumbent had a race that close. The closest race for a winning GOP incumbent was Rep. Dan Benishek, who won re-election in Michigan’s 1st District by just under 7 percentage points. Fourteen victorious Democratic incumbents had closer races than Benishek.
While Democratic incumbents were losing, Republicans were cruising. Just two Republican incumbents in the entire country won by less than 10 points.
Overall, it was the margins, and not necessarily the outcomes, in House races that were particularly stunning. GOP strategists aren’t shy about pointing out that Staten Island Rep. Michael Grimm, under a 20-count indictment, won re-election by a larger margin (13 percentage points) than fellow New Yorker Steve Israel (9 points), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
President Obama’s mediocre job approval rating, combined with “orphan states,” as explained by Wasserman in a recent FiveThirtyEight article, proved to be a toxic combination for Democrats.
It’s far too early to know what type of election 2016 will be (although there is no guarantee that Democrats will rebound), and the country could experience another electoral wave. But please, don’t predict an anti-incumbent election unless the race-by-race data shows that one is forming.