Americans want to throw the bums out. 10 percent of Congress should be terrified.


(DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

A new poll from Gallup shows that Americans are more anti-incumbent than they have been in a long time -- and maybe ever.

The poll shows just 22 percent of people say most members of Congress deserve reelection this year. That's lower than at any point since at least 1992.

But while people like the idea of ousting members of Congress en masse, they have long been far less willing to say that their own member deserves the same fate.

But Gallup -- and many other pollsters -- have also shown the number of those saying their Congress member deserves reelection falling in recent years. In fact, earlier this year Gallup showed that number hit a new low of 46 percent.


Clearly, Americans aren't happy with the people running this country, and they appear more prepared than ever to throw the bums out and elect a wholly new Congress. Right?

Well, not so much. In fact, whenever political watchers like The Fix note such polls, the boo birds are quick to remind us that, in the vast majority of election years, more than 90 percent of incumbent lawmakers are reelected. This is indisputably true.

But while anti-incumbent sentiment doesn't mean Americans are suddenly going to replace entire swaths of Congress, it does matter.

As the chart below shows, over the last two decades, anti-incumbent sentiment has clearly correlated with higher turnover in Congress. Three of the most anti-incumbent years on record (1992, 1994 and 2010) also produced the lowest incumbent reelection rate -- albeit still between 85 and 90 percent in each case:

Data courtesy of Gallup.
Data courtesy of Gallup.

But the focus on anti-incumbent sentiment also kind of misses the point. That's because Americans basically never toss out a bunch of members of both parties. It's almost always one side or the other.

And indeed, it's just as instructive to look at the partisan split of the electorate heading into Election Day as it is to look at anti-incumbent sentiment.

Let's compare the percentage of incumbents tossed out of office to how partisan the electorate was heading into Election Day, according to Gallup polling (the red line is the partisan gap between the two parties in final poll conducted by Gallup):

AntiIncumbency2

As you can see, an increase in partisanship correlates with a decrease in the incumbent reeleection rate. And it's about as predictive as anti-incumbency.

Which is probably because anti-incumbency and partisanship are closely intertwined. Essentially, if people are unhappy, they choose one side or the other to blame.

So both anti-incumbent sentiment and partisanship increase -- and the incumbent reelection rate decreases.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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Aaron Blake · May 14