The Devil You Know

(Another school assignment, reposted here.)

In 2010, the US Congress approval rating hit an abysmal 13% among the general public, according to a Gallup poll released in December. With voters holding such a low opinion of their national legislators, one would expect an equally dramatic shift in who those voters choose to represent them. Yet in mid-term elections held that same year, 84% of Senators and 87% of Representatives who sought to remain in office were re-elected by their constituents. Why do the American public profess such an extreme displeasure with the legislature as a whole, but an equally extreme fondness for their own members of that body? Like many questions in political science, there is no simple or definitive answer. But the results of elections, and the public opinion polling that preceded them, may give us some insight into the complex and interrelated desires of the voting population.

Every election is different, and 2010 was no exception. While Democrats had made significant gains in both the House and Senate in 2006, and again in 2008 while also winning the Presidency, their successes were quickly ended by a large shift in voter dissatisfaction towards their party, and would lose much of what they gained in the 2010 election. Previous Gallop polls show that parties were in a statistical tie when it came to voter approval in 2005. But by 2009 the approval rate of Democrats in Congress had dropped significantly, while that of Republicans had barely budged. And yet even with such a shift in national public opinion, the rate at which incumbent Representatives kept their seats was only slightly below the historical average, while the reelection rate in the Senate landed square on the historical average.

Specific issues can sometimes keep voters support with a candidate they may not necessarily approve of on other issues. When voters are primarily concerned about issues like abortion, gay rights, or immigration policy, they will often support candidates based solely on their stance on these issues. Often times a House candidate’s district is drawn in a way that concentrates the demographics that support him or her, while opposing demographics are concentrated in another district, making both fairly non-competitive. For these to explain the high retention rate of elected officials, an individual’s approval rating among their own constituents should be consistently high. Yet in the beginning of 2010, according to an AP-GfK poll, less than half of polled respondents approved of their own representatives, and nearly one third told Pew Research that they did not think that they should be reelected.

Incumbents in the 2010 elections didn’t just face opposition from their opposing party. Many of the incumbents faced challengers from within their own party, and primary election losses were a significant portion of the overall incumbency loses in the last election. Utah Senator Bob Bennett, who won 69% of the general election vote in 2004, was defeated in his 2010 primary. Senator Arlen Specter, who switched parties from Republican to Democrat in 2009, lost his primary to a Democratic challenger. Of the four incumbent Senators who lost their seats in 2010, half lost them to members of their own party. One, Republican Lisa Murkowski, lost her primary election, but went on to be reelected in the general election by mounting a write-in campaign. These results show that party affiliation isn’t enough to explain the high re-election rate among Senators.

In the House of Representatives there is a decidedly different story. Of the 58 incumbents who lost their seats, only four lost them to a primary election challenger. These were evenly split, two Democrats and two Republicans. In the general election a total of 52 incumbent Democrats lost, while only 2 incumbent Republicans did. The majority of Democratic loses came from Representatives who were elected as part of the large Democratic gains in the 2006 and 2008 elections.

The above findings don’t give a clear picture of why the vast majority of voters hold such a negative view of Congress as a whole. What is shown is that most legislators enjoy the support of a comfortable majority of their constituents. Among those who don’t, however, which chamber they are from does appear to play a significant role. Senators are far more likely to lose their seats to a member of their own party. Being elected by voters from across their state, Senators generally tend to be more centrist in their politics in order to appeal to a wider variety of voters. This makes them equally vulnerable to challengers from both sides of the political spectrum. However, once they have secured their election, both their central position and large electorate makes them less vulnerable to small shifts in party approval. Their longer, 6 year terms also make them less vulnerable to any short-term shifts, which may revert or even rebound before the incumbent Senator stands for re-election.

Members of the House of Representatives, on the other hand, only need to appeal to the a geographically smaller, more demographically similar, and usually ideologically consistent set of voters. In this environment, politicians must appeal to the more partisan extremes held by these constituents, which leaves little room for a challenger from their own party. It also makes it much harder for a politician from an opposing party to gain traction in their district. But it does make them more vulnerable to unexpected shifts in voter’s approval of that party as a whole, as witnessed by the Democrat’s gains in 2008 when party approvel moved in their direction, and again in 2010 when it moved away.

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