Many people think change is in the air. Voters are angry. And they want to throw the bums out. That’s the dominant narrative this election cycle. But at least during primary season, that narrative is fitting poorly with actual election results. Politico reports:
Six incumbents have lost this season: Sens. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and Reps. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) and Parker Griffith (R-Ala.). Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, pointed out in Arena that factoring for those losses translated into a 98.3 percent win rate for incumbents so far in 2010.
That 98.3 percent win rate will drop on Election Day. But probably not by much. Not even if one or both chambers switch parties. In 2008, incumbents running for re-election had a 94.9 percent success rate. In 2006, when Congress changed parties, the re-election rate was still right around 94 percent. The last time re-election rates went as low as 90 percent was in 1992 — nearly two decades ago.
The sad truth is that incumbents are safe. It doesn’t matter that Congress’ approval ratings are in the low teens. Voters just aren’t going to throw out very many bums. Voters may despise Congress as an institution, but most people have positive opinions of their own representative.
That’s why the average tenure in the House is more than 14 years, or seven terms. And most turnover isn’t from losing elections. It’s from retirement, or running for other office, or death; for many, politics is literally a lifelong career.
So expect a lot of familiar faces to be sworn in when the 112th Congress convenes in January, even if power changes hands.
Though I will, of course, be very happy if events prove me wrong.