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The Power of Anti-Incumbency

I have written here before of the advantages of being an Incumbent officeholder in an election year. There is clearly a strong motivation for people to support the re–election of an incumbent. An incumbent has experience doing the job. His or her every move gets attention from the media back home, and free press coverage has a lot of value.

I have also written here about the hazards of midterm elections for the president's party (whoever the president may be).

The power of incumbency isn't always so powerful.

But often the ramifications of neither are apparent until after the elections have been held. Democrats realized too late what they were up against in 2010 and 2014; likewise Republicans didn't see the wave that was upon them in 2006.

Sometimes — but not always — you can get clues ahead of time through party primaries.

Because of their strengths, incumbents usually prevail in their parties. In a typical election, whether it is a presidential year or a midterm, most incumbent senators win renomination; at worst, one may be defeated by a challenger from within the party. Between 1946 and 2012, nearly 1,000 incumbent senators ran for re–election instead of choosing to leave office for one reason or another, and only 46 (or 5%) were denied renomination by their party's voters.

When more than one incumbent senator loses in the primaries, the problem is not confined to a single state or perhaps even region. If the number of incumbents who seek re–election and lose renomination gets higher than that, it is usually — but not always — a harbinger of things to come.

The worst year for Senate incumbents during the primaries was in the first election after the end of World War II. Thirty senators sought re–election that year, and six were denied renomination by their party's voters. That's 20%.

Harry Truman had become president following Franklin D. Roosevelt's death the year before. Even though the Allies had won the war, Truman was wildly unpopular — perhaps in part because Democrats had been in charge of everything for well over a decade but also because of his controversial handling of some high–profile postwar labor strikes — and the midterm election was, as it often is, a referendum on the president.

Truman was seen as such a liability, in fact, that he campaigned for few Democratic candidates — if any. The same phenomenon has been seen in recent years. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama were kept at arm's length

Republicans also benefited from what is considered a "good map" — in which the other party has to defend the majority of the seats on the ballot. Such seats usually benefit from having incumbents on the ballot; open seats typically are much more competitive.

As it was, the Republicans won seven Senate seats from incumbents who were on the ballot that fall — and captured six others, seizing the majority for the first time since 1930.

The next–worst year for postwar incumbents seeking another term came in 1950.

In the intervening four years, Truman scored his upset victory over Tom Dewey, and Democrats retook control of both chambers of Congress.

But by 1950 Truman was unpopular again, and once again the election was a referendum on him. Thirty–two senators ran for re–election and five of them (16%) were denied renomination. When the votes were counted in November, the Democrats lost ground in both chambers but still retained majorities.

In the Senate, four Republicans defeated incumbent Democrats, and one Democrat defeated an incumbent Republican. (As an historical side note, future President Richard Nixon, a Republican, flipped a Senate seat that year, too, but he didn't defeat an incumbent. The incumbent, a Democrat, retired.)

In the 33 elections that have been held since, the portion of incumbents who were rejected by their party's voters has been 10% or higher only four times. Most could be said to foretell trouble for one party or the other, depending upon who was in the Oval Office, or both — but not all. For example, 14% of incumbent senators were defeated in party primaries in 1968; while Democrats lost part of their majorities in Congress that year, they lost nearly as many Senate seats two years later — but only 3% of incumbent senators lost their primaries in 1970.

In 1978, the midterm of Democrat Jimmy Carter's presidency, 12% of incumbent senators lost their primaries, and 14% of incumbents lost their primaries in 1980, the year of the Reagan Revolution. In all, Democrats lost 15 Senate seats from the time Carter took office to the day he left Washington four years later. In hindsight, the primaries of 1978 and 1980 hinted at the voter frustration that had been building in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam and the trouble that lay ahead for Democrats in the general election of 1980.

For the next 30 years, most Senate incumbents who chose to run for another term won their primaries. Then, in 2010, 12% of Senate incumbents lost their primaries, perhaps heralding an era of discontent. The Senate remained in Democratic hands (but just barely), and the Republicans gained 64 seats to claim a House majority they retain today.

And sometimes so–called wave elections happen even when incumbents don't run into problems in the primaries, and the 2014 midterm is a great example. Republicans won nine Senate seats from the Democrats that year, and the primaries were not factors.

In short, incumbency is usually an advantage, but sometimes it is a hindrance. I recommend keeping an eye on the primaries next year to see if you can get any early clues as to the voters' mood.

This post first appeared on Freedom Writing, please read the originial post: here

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The Power of Anti-Incumbency


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