Victory to the Wonks?

Political scientists saw Tuesday’s meme-shaking results coming

The anti-incumbency meme hit a bit of a wall yesterday, according to those who’ve often been the ones pushing it forward. The Times’s Kirk Johnson summed up the feeling with this lede to his story on the Colorado primary:

The predictions of doom for incumbents and establishment candidates this campaign season are proving to be more complex in the real world. On Tuesday, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, a Democrat who had hitched his star to the fortunes of President Obama, survived a bitter primary challenge.”

And here’s Politico’s John F. Harris’s “What-does-it-all-mean-for-Barack?” take on Tuesday’s four big primary results:

The Colorado results, combined with Tuesday’s returns in Connecticut, Georgia and Minnesota, and other recent primaries, suggest it may be time to scrutinize a treasured 2010 storyline — about an angry electorate, determined to punish insiders and professional pols of all stripes, rushing to embrace ideological insurgents.

Harris goes on to distinguish between GOP primaries, which he says have an anti-incumbency taste, and Democratic primaries, which can, gasp, be explained away by individual circumstances and local idiosyncrasies.

The results are also a reminder that the torrent of coverage about 2010 being a grim-reaper year for incumbents everywhere doesn’t entirely jibe with reality. Just like earlier this cycle with Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who survived a fierce intraparty challenge, Bennet showed that a determined candidate with influential friends can swim against the year’s hostile political currents, though both Democrats still face major general election hurdles.


Of the Democratic incumbents who have lost, all could be chalked up to unique factors that aren’t totally related to this year’s political environment: Sen. Arlen Specter (switched parties), Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (hurt by the arrest of her son, the former mayor), and Rep. Alan Mollohan (faced lingering ethics questions and was late to recognize his electoral jeopardy).

This stop-take-a-breath-and-look-at-what’s-really-happening approach has a familiar ring to those who’ve been paying attention to what political scientists, rather than many political commentators, have been saying this year. In fact, just a week ago, John Sides at The Monkey Cage continued his crusade against unfounded assumptions of anti-incumbency when he linked to this sharp takedown of the meme by Christopher Beam at Slate. The math in Beam’s piece, “Anti-Anti-Incumbency,” is devastating.

…let’s put this in perspective. So far this year, 282 federal-level incumbents have been up for re-election. Of those, only six have lost their seats—four in the House and two in the Senate. (Aside from Bennett, Kilpatrick, and Specter, there’s Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va.; Rep. Parker Griffith, R-Ala.; and Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C.) That’s 2 percent of all incumbents. If you count only the 119 incumbents who have faced primary challengers, the proportion who were defeated goes up to 5 percent.

Sides wrote,“Kudos to Beam for actually counting both the numerator and the denominator and then dividing. That bit of simple arithmetic seems beyond a great many commentators.”

Beam then addresses some of the cases that have fuelled the meme.

The six incumbents who have lost are largely anomalies. Bennett, for example, was ousted by a small Utah convention dominated by the party’s conservative base. Sure, all primaries skew toward the party’s base, but this was a caucus of 3,500 Republican activists. Had the whole state of Utah voted, Bennett might well have survived. Specter, too, was a special case. After switching parties, he was asking for the votes of Pennsylvania Democrats who had spent their lives voting against him.

Tuesday came along at just the right time for some outlets to catch on, and to slow down in their rush to a big-picture anti-incumbency storyline. Tuesday also came along at the right time to highlight again the importance, and incisiveness, of the work of poli-sci wonks. Their tempered, data-heavy considerations mightn’t make for sexy narrative, but they do make for perspective. My former colleague Greg Marx wrote extensively on this. In a piece from our May/June issue titled Embrace the Wonk, Marx wrote:

…even in day-to-day coverage, a poli-sci perspective can have value in helping reporters make choices about which storylines, and which nuggets of information, really matter. For that to happen, political scientists must do more to make their work accessible, reaching beyond the circle of journalists who are inclined to, as Sides says, “embrace the wonk.”

Politico’s Harris embraced the wonk today, closing his report with a very unsexy, un-newsy quote from well-known political scientist Larry Sabato. And kudos to him for doing so.

… as Sabato notes, for all this year’s turbulence, 98.5 percent of House and Senate incumbents seeking another term have been renominated.

“I think what is remarkable is that, despite the tea party and a bad economy, the vast majority of incumbents are having little trouble winning,” Sabato said.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.