The 2010 midterm election has been billed as one of the biggest political upheavals in recent history.
That’s true. And it’s also kind of pathetic.
Although not all the results are final, Republicans have picked up at least 60 House and six Senate seats. Apart from 1994 (when Republicans picked up 54 House and eight Senate seats), no election since 1950 has involved such a large shift.
But keep in mind that, even in a year like 2010, not much changes.
Just look at the fate of the 472 Congressional seats (435 in the House, 37 in the Senate) that were up for election in 2010:
As of Nov. 9, 1-2% still aren’t settled (all of them involve incumbents);
In 1-2%, an incumbent ran, lost in the primary, and dropped out of the race;
In 4%, an incumbent retired to run for another public office;
In 7%, an incumbent retired from politics and public office altogether;
In 11%, an incumbent ran but lost in the general election;
In 75%, an incumbent ran and won.
So, forget the congressional approval polls: Congress emerged from the midterm with a 75% approval rating. Three-quarters of the people who were in the House and Senate last year will be there next year.
How’s that for “change you can believe in” and “sending Washington a message”?
But, wait! There’s more!
Nearly 90% of the 472 congressional races in the 2010 midterm featured an incumbent running to hold on to their seat. Of these races, incumbents won their primary 98% of the time. They won in the general election 85% of the time. In other words, about six out of seven incumbents who ran, won.
Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) — even though her race hasn’t been called yet — could be considered emblematic of the power of incumbency. She lost her primary, but stayed in the race, and she appears to have won with a write-in campaign.
In other words, Murkowski is an incumbent whose name is known well enough to win even when she’s not on the ballot.
Remember those congressional approval polls, the ones I just told you to forget? They indicated that 20% of Americans approved of the job Congress was doing and 70% disapproved.
So, 70% were unhappy with the job done by Congress, but they only voted out 15% of the incumbents who ran. Although only 20% approved of Congress, 75% of it is back, and 85% of incumbents who ran won again.
There’s nothing new, here. This merely continues a long history of congressional stagnation. Incumbents don’t lose. And this “upheaval” election proves it.
What does it mean, though? Are all those congressional approval polls just mistaken?
Or could it be we have a political system that prevents massive disapproval from translating into change?