Voters Throw Bums In While Holding Congress in Disdain

Graphic: David Ingold/Bloomberg
Graphic: David Ingold/Bloomberg Low approval ratings have been typically tied to high congressional turnover, but nine in 10 members of Congress won their re-election bids in 2012 with a pre-election approval rating of 21 percent.

Nine in 10 members of the U.S. House and Senate who sought new terms in office this year were successful, improving their record for re-election even as public approval of Congress sank to all-time lows.

The BGOV Barometer shows that 90 percent of House members and 91 percent of senators who sought re-election in 2012 were successful, exceeding the incumbent re-election rates of 2010, when 85 percent of House members and 84 percent of senators seeking re-election were successful. For senators, this year’s re-election percentage was the highest since 2004.

Voters were more likely to return their own representatives to office even though the public had a dim view of the legislative branch as a whole. Congress had a 21 percent approval rating on Oct. 15-16 after reaching all-time lows of 10 percent in February and August, according to Gallup polls. Just 10 percent of Americans said that members of Congress have high or very high honesty and ethical standards, according to Gallup data for Nov. 26-29.

“It wasn’t a ‘throw the bums out’ election, it was a ‘throw the bums in’ election,” John J. Pitney Jr., a professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, said in an interview.

2010 Losses

In the 435-member House, 391 members sought new terms and 351 were re-elected. In the Senate, 21 of 23 senators seeking to extend their tenure were successful.

The results contrast with 2010, when more than 50 Democrats lost in a Republican wave that formed at the midpoint of President Barack Obama’s first term.

The incumbent re-election success rate would have exceeded 90 percent if not for redistricting, the once-per-decade process of reshaping district boundaries to reflect population shifts. Redistricting forces incumbents to run against one another or seek re-election in unfamiliar terrain.

Of the 40 House members who were defeated in the primaries or in the Nov. 6 general election, 13 lost to other House members who were seeking the same districts. This total includes Jeff Landry, a first-term Republican from Louisiana unseated by four-term Republican Charles Boustany in a Dec. 8 runoff.

Other House members lost to challengers in reconfigured districts where the incumbents weren’t well-known. Tim Holden, a 10-term Democrat from Pennsylvania, lost to lawyer Matt Cartwright in an April primary after Republican legislators redrew his district such that 80 percent of residents were new to Holden.

Brown’s Defeat

In the Senate, which isn’t subject to redistricting, Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts was the only member of the chamber unseated on Nov. 6, tying a post-World War II low of one senator losing in the general election. Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican, was beaten in the primary election. The other 21 senators who wanted new terms were successful.

Incumbent re-election rates usually exceed 90 percent in the House. The rate was 94 percent both in 2006 and 2008, according to the reference work “Vital Statistics on American Politics.”

Incumbents have institutional and political advantages that they can bring to bear to win elections. They have large staffs that cater to constituents’ needs, creating an image of responsiveness that can pay political dividends.

Incumbents dominate fundraising because they win more frequently than they lose and also sit on committees and cast votes that are important to companies that have business before Congress. And only a few dozen draw top-flight opposition.

During the 2012 election, an improving economy may have made voters even less likely to reject incumbents, including Obama, who benefited from a perception that conditions were getting better. The economy added 521,000 jobs in the quarter ended Sept. 30, growing at a 2.7 percent rate. The unemployment rate fell to 7.9 percent in October from 9.8 percent in November 2010, the most recent election before Nov. 6.

“In situations like that, people tend to dance with the one they brung,” Pitney said. “We saw that in the presidential race and in both chambers of Congress.”

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