Incumbents likely to be voted out? Don't bet on it

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 28, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Since 1976, more than 90 percent of incumbents in the House of Representatives have won re-election, and new signs suggest that's likely to happen again in November, despite the widespread public anger at Washington.

A new Pew Research Center/National Journal poll found that people still like their own members of Congress far more than they like Congress itself. The institution's approval ratings long have been dismal, and the latest survey found that only 13 percent gave it good or excellent marks.

Yet when people were asked their views of their own representatives, the approval number jumped — 28 percent gave them excellent or good ratings. Nearly half said they liked their lawmaker's judgment on issues, and 43 percent said their representative is in touch with constituents back home and can help bring about change in Washington.

The Pew poll's findings add fuel to the argument that even in a year when the outspoken tea party movement has dominated political dialogue, "odds are very high that 90 percent or better of incumbents will be re-elected," said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, who tracks congressional races.

Since 1976, the re-election rate for House incumbents has been above 90 percent every election except in 1992, when it dipped to 88 percent, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group. Even in 1994 and 2006, when party control of the House switched, incumbent re-election rates were in the 90s.

Incumbents traditionally start their fall races with several advantages — fundraising is usually easier, districts are carefully drawn to maximize an incumbent's re-election prospects, and by fall they've survived primaries or party conventions, and thus have tested organizations and popular support.

In addition, said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, "they have experience. They know how to run."

Still, the Pew numbers are a reminder of the challenges that incumbents face. Most people don't know their representative well. Only 18 percent said they've met or shaken hands with their lawmaker, and while 46 percent said they have some idea where their House member stands, 51 percent don't.

"There's still a residual sense that people voters know aren't automatically thrown in the junk heap," Miringoff said, "but the pressure will be on for incumbents to justify their re-election more this time."

They'll have a chance to get more familiar, probably starting this weekend, as Congress is expected to recess Friday until after the election.

Going home for more than a month, Miringoff said, "gives them a chance to say, 'I'm not one of them.'''

Democrats control 255 of the 435 House seats and 59 of the 100 Senate seats. All House seats are up for election, as are 37 Senate seats, 19 of them now held by Democrats and 18 by Republicans.

Republicans need a net gain of 39 House seats to control the House, and 10 Senate seats to win a majority there. They retain a good chance to win control of the House for the first time in four years, analysts say, because of the public's anti-Washington mood, Democrats are the party in power, and the GOP's mounting strong challenges to moderate Democrats who barely won conservative districts in 2008.

Sabato projects Republicans gaining 47 House and seven or eight Senate seats.

However, beating incumbents is unlikely to be the main reason. Some 43 House seats this year have no incumbent. Most open seats were vacated by retiring members or those seeking other offices. Only seven incumbents lost re-nomination bids this year — four House members and three senators.

In 1994, when Republicans won control of the House for the first time in 40 years, there were 52 open seats, and in 2006, when Democrats regained control, 30 seats had no incumbents.

The Senate record of re-electing incumbents is more volatile. Incumbents run only every six years and have to satisfy larger, more diverse constituencies. Their re-election rates are usually above 80 percent. Fourteen Senate races this year have no incumbents.

Lawmakers offer their own perspectives.

"We believe we are strongly positioned to hold the House and will do so. . . . Members are confident. Members are prepared. Members are organized," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

Retiring Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, however, notes that people are particularly angry this year about the health care overhaul and ballooning government debt.

"After a candidate hears from the people about that," Gregg said, "they may decide they want to go into hiding."

(William Douglas contributed to this article.)

METHODOLOGY

The Pew survey of 1,010 people was conducted Sept. 23 to 26. The error margin is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

ON THE WEB

Pew poll on Congress

McClatchy-Marist poll on economic issues

Congressional re-election rates

Cook Political Report Senate race ratings

Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball

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