Why Americans Hate Incumbents Yet Still Re-Elect Them

In a recent article, PolitiFact ran the data and apparently the approval rating for Congress is around 14%, yet the incumbent re-election rate is around 95%. Just in case you just suffered blunt force trauma to the head, let me explain why that statistic is odd. It means potential voters overwhelmingly hate the people who are currently in office, and yet actual voters overwhelmingly re-elect those same despised individuals.

That is odd, to say the least. But what exactly does it mean? I think the bottom line is this: people generally vote according to a universalized version of the Buckley Rule. The Buckley Rule, named after conservative William F. Buckley, Jr., is the principle that conservatives should vote for “the rightwardmost electable candidate.”

A universalized version of the Buckley Rule would basically mean voting for “the least undesirable viable candidate.” In other words, vote from within the candidates that have a chance (i.e., the Democrat or the Republican) and then vote for the candidate that most agrees with you between the two choices.

So what that means is this. Voters may absolutely and overwhelmingly hate all the candidates, but they hate some candidates less than others. But why does the incumbent nearly always win? Because he is generally either a Republican or a Democrat. And people are voting along party lines.

Incumbents got elected in the first place for a reason, and it is likely that the circumstances haven’t changed much since the last election. The electorate hasn’t changed much. So the election results don’t change much. Think about it. If the majority of a population votes Democrat, they are going to keep voting Democrat. And incumbents don’t change parties after a victory hardly ever, so they keep getting elected.

The only significant way to change incumbent re-election stats would be to significantly change the voter population make-up. This can come from redrawing district lines or by encouraging more voters to the polls or other similar means. Far and away, the major losses for incumbents in the midterm elections had to do with a significant change in voter turnout. The people who were really motivated to get out and vote for Obama really didn’t care all that much to get out for the midterms. So Democrats lost.

There are so many potential causal fallacies here, that I can understand why political pundits (especially on the left) have been getting it wrong. For instance, there’s this statistic: “Nearly always, the candidate that spends the most money wins.” But that doesn’t mean a candidate won because he spent the most money. When you factor in the incumbent re-election stat, things start to make more sense. The incumbent nearly always gets elected, and the incumbent also nearly always gets more money. He gets establishment money. So maybe the candidate that spends the most money wins because the candidate that gets the most money would have won anyway, as the incumbent.

But the sad fact is that the majority of Americans don’t care all that much for any of the candidates. They generally vote along party lines: conservatives generally vote Republican and liberals generally vote Democrat. When they vote at all. And voting has become much more of a personal statement than it ever was before. People wanted to vote for Obama because it was historic. They weren’t saying something about him with their vote. They were attempting to say something about themselves. It’s high time people started voting for the person and not the party. Forget Republican and Democrat. Get people in office who will fight for the Constitution. Whatever they call themselves.

Now, I know. I know. Voting for a third party, as we all have been told over and over again, is throwing away your vote, right? According to the Buckley Rule, we all have to vote for viable candidates, remember? No. That’s just what both parties have been preaching for obvious reasons. Because it means Washington stays Republican or Democrat no matter how much we hate the whole lot. Stop drinking the Kool-Aid. Succumb to the obvious: a third party candidate would win if we voted for him.