Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Still bracing for the anti-incumbent tide

When I was a writer and editor at U.S. News & World Report back in the 1980s and 1990s, I was always amused by the way the political reporters and columnists were forever declaring the existence of some political trend—very often it was a rising tide of anti-incumbent feeling—based on absolutely nothing whatsoever. Often the "trend" was nothing more than Republican agitprop wrapped in the language of all-wise, knowing punditry, and the political reporters were suckers for it, because they could stroke their beards (well, they didn't have beards, but you know what I mean), and adopting a smug, wise, knowing, slightly cynical air, they would declare at editorial meetings, "There's a rising tide of anti-incumbent feeling in the country."

Then when their predictions failed to pan out, they never once to my recollection ever admitted that they had been wrong, much less that they didn't have a clue what they were talking about. Instead the story now was that voters had "defied the rising tide of anti-incumbent feeling," or that in "a surprising reversal of the anti-incumbent feeling which had been sweeping the nation," or  . . .

We've been hearing all this year about—yes, the anti-incumbent tide. In fact, if you Google "anti-incumbent tide," you'll get 458,000 hits.

So far this year, a total of four incumbent House members have been defeated in primaries since March. Still, after yesterday's primaries in Colorado, Georgia, Connecticut, and Minnesota—where every single incumbent seeking reelection won—the New York Times predictably ran a story whose lead declared, "Senator Michael Bennet’s win in the Colorado primary gives Democrats hope of stemming an anti-incumbent tide in November."

Here's a chart I generated using data from Larry Sabato and others graphically documenting the unstoppable tidal wave of anti-incumbent sentiment this year:

Incumbents defeated in primaries