What Will The "Anti-Incumbent Frenzy" Mean For 2010?

A new CNN poll shows that 44 percent of Americans do not think their own representative deserves reelection in 2010. Compared to only 31 percent in 2006, and a paltry 15 percent in 2000, this new number represents a significant transformation in the way we assess our legislators.

Americans have always been quick to crucify "Congress" as an abstract collective of bickering, megalomaniacal fatcats incapable of getting real governing done. But when asked to evaluate individual congressmen from their home districts, they have usually changed their tune entirely.

During the 2008 elections, 94 percent of House incumbents and 83 percent of Senate incumbents were reelected, despite the fact that 58 percent of Americans believed most members of Congress did not deserve another chance, according to a CNN poll. Rep. Mike Quigley has called this trend "the schizophrenia of the American people... They hate Congress, but they love their congressmen." Recent data, however, suggest the disease may be in remission.

Here's a graphic representation from The Monkey Cage:

This figure displays the percentage of respondents who believe (a) that most members of Congress deserve re-election and (b) that their representative deserves reelection in 2000 and 2010. (The bars do not sum to 100 percent because the "no opinion" respondents are not graphed.)

Monkey Cage graph.pngThat's not to say that hating Congress is no longer a national pastime: a recent CBS/New York Times poll revealed that only 8 percent of Americans think that the current members of Congress deserve to be reelected. But more importantly, Americans are now much more displeased with their own representatives. Both in 2000 and 2010, people much prefer their representatives to Congress as a whole, but in 2010 Congress and congressmen are converging to similar levels of despicableness.

What are some of the possible causes for this unprecedented shift? Perhaps Democrats in Republican districts and Republicans in Democratic districts are picking up partisan preferences that previously lay dormant. With increasing pressure from economic woes and no fix in sight, fast rising anti-Congress ire may have simply bubbled over to anyone associated with the legislative body--a desire for something (anything) new. The Monkey Cage's Joshua Tucker suggests that the Tea Party movement and the liberal blogosphere have convinced many Democrats and Republicans to prefer potential primary challengers over their current representatives.

So what does this mean for the political landscape moving forward? Incumbents have been thrown out en masse before, but generally only incumbents of the president's party, in what are known as "punishment effects." But will this year's formidable anti-incumbency sentiment work against incumbents of all partisan bents in the 2010 midterm elections? While 54 percent of CNN poll respondents believe most Democrats do not deserve to be reelected later this year, 56 percent believe most Republicans do not deserve to be reelected. According to a recent column by congressional expert Alan Abramowitz, evaluations of the president, not Congress, will determine the fate of the Democrats this November. I suppose my question for Abramowitz, then, is: what about evaluations of members?

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