Incumbency is a dirty word in 2012
In an election that has already produced any number of eye-popping poll numbers — Donald Trump as a viable presidential candidate! Herman Cain as the GOP frontrunner! — a new data point from the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll may well be the most revealing yet.
Asked whether it would be acceptable or unacceptable if after the 2012 election “many of the members of Congress in the House and Senate who have been in office for 15 years or longer are defeated” 51 percent said that outcome would be “strongly acceptable” to them while just six percent said it would be strongly unacceptable.
That is an absolutely amazing finding and speaks to how radically the political landscape has changed over the last decade.
Not so long ago political handicappers spoke glowingly of the “power of incumbency” — those edges that being a Member of Congress gave you when running for re-election. Incumbents were — and still are — typically the better known, better financed and more campaign-tested candidates in a race. Given those legs-up, incumbents were typically afforded the benefit of the doubt in most races.
And then it all changed.
Beginning in the 2006 cycle, having “Rep.” or “Sen.” after your names went from being a very good thing in terms of your likelihood of holding onto your job to a far less beneficial thing.
Twenty-four House members lost in either primaries (two) or general elections (22) that election cycle. More incumbents lost in general elections in 2006 than had lost in the past three elections combined.
Four years later, the anti-incumbent sentiment was even stronger with 53(!) incumbents losing general election races including four — Reps. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), John Spratt (D-S.C.), Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.) — who had spent more than two decades (at least) in Congress.
What those numbers make abundantly clear is that over the past three elections voters have grown sick and tired of the status quo — as represented by both parties. (Democrats picked up scads of seats in 2006 and 2008 while Republicans scored a whopping 63-seat pickup in 2010.)
The way voters (particularly independents) now seem to be thinking about politics — at least in downballot races like for the House — is not in terms of Democrat versus Republican but rather in terms of old hands versus fresh faces.
The desire — as made clear in the NBC-WSJ poll — to, in one fell swoop, wipe out the vast majority of members who have spent 15 years or more in the nation’s capitol speaks to how much importance voters attach to institutional wisdom these days. Answer: Not much.
The problem this poses for those Members of Congress who have spent the past few decades in Washington is obvious. No longer can they run on their record of accomplishments. In fact, reminding voters of their connections to Washington is the exact wrong strategy in an time like this one. (Need evidence? Then Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold ran ads reminding voters that he had been in the chamber since 1992. That strategy didn’t, um, work.
It’s an environment that — at least at the moment — is heavily tilted in favor of challengers (of both parties), especially those with little or no past political experience.