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Mellman: Will we throw the bums out?

Few things excite pundits more than the prospect of a “throw the bums out” election, where citizens finally rise up and defeat the legislators they disdain. Commentators regularly predict it. 

Such a mythic rebellion against the political class has never actually occurred, however. Incumbents typically get reelected. That’s hardly new. In 1792, 100 percent of the House incumbents who sought reelection emerged victorious. In the nation’s first 11 election cycles the reelect rate consistently broke 90 percent. Since 1950, the lowest rate was a “mere” 85 percent (in 2010). 

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When incumbents aredefeated, they tend to be from either one party or the other. Since 1950, there has not been a single election in which even 10 incumbents from both parties were defeated. Sometimes it’s “throw the Republican bums out” and sometimes it’s “throw the Democratic bums out,” but there hasn’t been just a “throw the bums out” election. 

Absence of historical precedent is not sufficient to prevent the anti-incumbent meme from regularly reappearing. Often it’s a poll question breathing life into this narrative.

A few months ago, one pundit acknowledged that Americans “usually don’t throw their law maker out of office.” But, “new polls indicate that times and perceptions about throwing the bums out may be changing.”

Earlier, another distinguished commentator opined, “the nation may be headed for an anti-incumbent election in 2014 ... many voters already seem inclined to ‘throw the bums out’ in the midterm ... a rebellion against the status quo in which voters send outsiders to clean up the mess.” 

The evidence behind these predictions: nearly three-quarters of voters “said they would like to see most members of Congress defeated ... an even more eye popping number, 38%, said they didn’t want their own Representative reelected.”

Answers to poll questions aren’t always immediately interpretable. We’ve learnedthat when we ask voters for whom they will vote, their answers correlate strongly with election outcomes. We’ve learned that presidential approval is related to a variety of political outcomes. 

But that does not mean that all poll questions actually measure what they purport to measure. Pew’s Drew Desilver noted “opinion surveys on incumbent sentiment haven’t always been the best predictors of big electoral swings.”

Moreover, other poll questions, constructed differently, suggest a very different outcome. In a recent survey we undertook for the Bipartisan Policy Center with our colleagues at North Star Opinion Research (who aren’t responsible for anything they disagree with here), we posed a different question and got very different answers. 

A typical anti-incumbent question asks “Are you inclined to reelect your representative or are you inclined to look around for someone else to vote for?” Needless to say, looking and casting a ballot are two different things. Another question offers one side of the equation: “Would you like to see your representative in Congress re-elected in the next election?” Both these questions show record high anti-incumbent sentiment, fueling the “throw the bums out” storyline.

By contrast, we gave voters two choices. Just 19 percent said “I am so upset with Congress that in the next election I am going to vote against my member of Congress whether I like and agree with him or not.” In other words, just one in five expressed a pure anti-incumbent sentiment. Three-quarters said they would do what we expect voters to do: “Whatever I think about Congress as a whole, in the next election I’m going to evaluate the candidates who are running and vote for whoever is better, whether or not they are already a member of Congress.”

One can find fault with our question too, but it more accurately reflects the most likely outcome: no anti-incumbent wave. 

At least, we can learn that interpreting public sentiment on complex matters based on a few rather similar questions does not always reveal the whole story. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.