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Forecast for Incumbents: Bad to Very Bad

by Ruy Teixeira

There are lots of good reasons why the incumbent party–the GOP–may succeed in retaining control of Congress this year, despite the unfavorable political climate. These reasons are well-summarized by Charlie Cook in his January 6 National Overview of the political situation on his website. Cook provides all the details about open seats, incumbent strength and numbers of seats currently deemed competitive. The math these details imply is indeed helpful to the Republicans and I will not rehearse it here.

What it means, though, is that the GOP is unlikely to get dislodged unless an intense anti-incumbent mood moves a significant number of races from the noncompetitive to competitive category. Could that happen? Possibly. Because one thing that does seem to be developing is just such an intense anti-incumbent mood unlike anything seen in American politics since–you guessed it–1994.

As the USA today story on the latest Gallup poll observes:

Views of whether most members of Congress and the respondents' own representatives deserve re-election have sunk to levels not seen since 1994, when Democrats lost control of both houses....

Attitudes toward the Republican congressional leadership have soured. By 50%-40%, those surveyed say the policies proposed by Republican leaders in Congress would move the country in the wrong direction. That's by far the worst showing since the GOP took control more than a decade ago....

For the first time since 1994, a plurality of Americans say most members of Congress don't deserve re-election. The 42% who say most members do deserve re-election is the same as in the first USA TODAY survey of 1994.

Typically, voters feel more favorably about their own representatives than they do most members of Congress. That's still true — 60% say their representative deserve re-election — but that figure is the lowest since 1994, and almost the same as in the first poll taken that tumultuous year.

A recent Hotline analysis underscored the danger level for incumbents by looking at another set of indicators: Congressional and presidential approval. Going back to 1990, they found a strong relationship between levels of approval, especially Congressional, in January/February of the election year and Congressional results for the incumbent party in that November’s election. Again, only 1994 (31 percent approval/61 percent disapproval) has Congressional approval numbers as low as we are now seeing (31/58)–indeed none of the other years are even close. But there is one way in which this year does look different from 1994–only it’s worse for the incumbent party. In early 1994, Clinton’s approval rating was averaging about 54 percent–today Bush is averaging only around 42 percent.

So, if an anti-incumbent mood is what’s needed for big change, we’ve got it. And with the Abramoff scandal just taking off, it is likely that anti-incumbent mood will only strengthen in the coming months