Anti-Incumbent Mood Is Exaggerated

In the wake of the highly publicized primary loss of Sen. Joe Lieberman (D.-Conn.) and the not-so-highly publicized primary loss of Gov. Frank Murkowski (R.-Alaska), pundits and political gamesters have been quick to brand this year’s election cycle as that of the “anti-incumbent.”

Voters are dissatisfied, they say. “Throw the bums out,” is apparently what we’re all thinking. And here we have hard evidence, from the primary loss of a Democratic senator to the primary loss of a Republican governor, that insurgent candidates are in this fall and that the idea of the elder statesman is so 2004.

Upon taking a closer look at three of the anti-incumbent crowd’s favorite races, one can see they are greatly exaggerating the potency and scope of the anti-incumbent “movement.”

1. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I.) vs. Ned Lamont (D.)—Connecticut

Joe Lieberman, as will no doubt be political legend decades from now, was ostracized from his own party for his support of the U.S. effort in Iraq. Surely this, says the anti-incumbent crowd, is a bellwether for the November 7 general election. This, they say, is proof that the Iraq War is so unpopular that anyone who supports it is a target for dismissal.

This conclusion is outlandish at best. The composition of voting Democrats in a primary, particularly of Northeastern Democrats, is hardly a microcosm of the entire American electorate in a general election. Even Connecticut’s general electorate is far too liberal to serve as such as an example, let alone Connecticut’s Democrats.

If either of these voting blocs were representative of the country as a whole, though, the results would remain inconclusive in regard to an anti-incumbent feeling this fall. Lamont’s lead of 13 points in the run-up to the Democratic primary fell to a measly 4-point margin of victory in just four days. Furthermore, there is no Lamont advantage when looking at general election polling data. Lieberman maintains a 5-point lead in the latest Real Clear Politics average.

Strike one.

2. Sen. Jim Talent (R.) vs. Claire McCaskill (D.)—Missouri

Jim Talent has been named by many in the editorial media as one of the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents. Barely victorious over Democrat Jean Carnahan in a 2002 special election, Talent has been on the Democrats’ radar for some time. His negatives include the aforementioned lack of overwhelming mandate to begin with, middling approval ratings, contributions from both Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay’s Americans for a Republican Majority PAC, and a record of very ardent support for President Bush’s policies.

Earlier this year, Talent appeared to be on the ropes, either tying or trailing his opponent McCaskill in most polls. McCaskill’s leads never escaped single digits, but catch-up is not a safe game for an incumbent senator, no matter how shallow the hole may be.

Now, Talent is polling on top, leading Claire McCaskill by an average of two points in the latest RCP average. Yes, it’s only two points, and sure, things can change. But if one of the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents is leading at all, the idea of an anti-incumbent climate is doubtful.

Strike two.

3. Sen. Rick Santorum (R.) vs. Bob Casey Jr. (D.)Pennsylvania

If one Republican senator is going down, it’s Rick Santorum, right? That’s one of the cardinal truths for Democrats this fall. First winning office in the Republican landslide of 1994, Santorum squeaked by then, and again in 2000, beating his Democratic opponents (both weak candidates) by an average of four points.

Given his tendency to mouth off, his historical lack of a major mandate, and his fairly low approval ratings that hover around 40%, it seemed that all Santorum needed to take the train home was a worthy opponent. The Democrats thought they had found him in Bob Casey Jr.

Son of the late, popular Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey, Bob Jr. is the one thing Democrats normally can’t stand: pro-life. However, the party’s elite, notably Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, pushed hard for Casey’s nomination, essentially on this alone. It was thought that if the Democrats could steal away Santorum’s pro-life leverage in a largely pro-life state, they could waltz to victory.

At first, all signs looked good. Casey skyrocketed to an 18-point lead in the polls. Surely, if the anti-incumbent crowd is correct, Casey would’ve held in double-digits. But they’re not, and he didn’t.

Casey now leads by a paltry, nearly statistically insignificant six points, according to the latest RCP roundup. Santorum, though still behind, has momentum, encouraging poll numbers, and a war chest full of cash.

Strike three.


If the anti-incumbent crowd is correct, these three races should be cake walks. They are not. As with so many insurgent candidacies, it appears that these three challengers have peaked. Although it would be imprudent to predict outright victory for Lieberman, Talent and Santorum at the moment, it is certainly demonstrable, in light of supposedly unpopular incumbents even competing, that the anti-incumbent crowd has exaggerated their case.