According to www.politifact.com, in 2014 the US congressional approval rating was just 11% prior to the election. With an overwhelming majority of the electorate disapproving the performance of their elected officials, voters were sure to throw the bums out of office in that election. But did they? Not even close. In that election 96.4% of incumbents were reelected to office. That means less than 4% of the “bums” were thrown out of office. Senator Tom Coburn said, “in several election cycles in recent history, more incumbents died in office than lost reelection bids.”
So, what happened? There was so much discontent in the electorate one would think a wholesale change would take place. Here are some facts to consider:
The lowest incumbent reelection rate was 85% for members of the House of Representatives and that has only occurred twice since the election in 1964. The Senate tends to be more volatile by comparison, but their lowest reelection rate in the past thirty years was 75% in 1986. Regardless of public sentiment, the position of congressman happens to be one of the most stable jobs in our country. If you’re looking for job security, get elected to congress, but as Shakespeare wrote, “ay, there’s the rub.”
The incumbent advantage is real, but why do we keep reelecting a congress that we adamantly dislike?
Familiarity. We tend to prefer people and things with which we are more familiar. This is one of the seven deadly sins of decision making. Incumbent politicians have the benefit of being seen in that position during the prior term, while contenders have not. That exposure and association are important influencers in the eyes of constituents.
Incumbents also tend to have greater “war chests” to spend on campaigning than their rivals. According to Paul Steinhauser and Robert Yoon of CNN, “On average, House incumbents outspent their rivals $1.7 million to $587,000, a ratio of almost a 3-1.”
It’s not us, it’s them. People hate congress, but they usually like the their representative (at least a little more than the group as a whole). That is because it is easier to hate an institution than an actual person.
We hate to admit when we’re wrong. If I previously voted for him, he’s my guy. Voting for someone else would be admitting I made a mistake when I voted for him last time. And, we would much rather justify a mistake than admit that we made one in the first place.
We vote for the lesser of two evils. The real choices for candidates occur in the primary elections, but less than 16% of the electorate voted in the 2012 primaries. That leads us to the general elections where there are fewer choices—usually between a Republican and a Democrat (with a smaller party candidate thrown in for good measure). Roughly two-thirds of voters identify with either the Democrat or Republican parties. Even people who consider themselves independents tend to favor one party over another. So, when in doubt we vote for the candidate in “our” party, even when we’re not particularly fond of them.
Why would we tow the party line when the incumbent hasn’t earned our vote?
Ignorance. According to Chris Cilliza of The Washington Post, only about one-third of U.S. citizens know the name of their House representative. Even fewer people know what he or she has done for the district. We identify ourselves based on a particular belief system and we vote for candidates that we feel share that general belief system. This is the main reason why turnover is so low. Most voting districts predominantly support one party over the other. Therefore, when an incumbent has the support of their party in a district, reelection is nearly automatic.
We vote for our favorite brand. Political parties work very hard to simplify the issues of the complicated world in which we live. This makes the voting decision easier for the electorate. Do I identify with the red team or the blue team? Am I conservative or liberal? Am I a donkey or an elephant? Todd Phillips’ piece in the Huffington Post titled, How Was 91 Percent of Congress Re-Elected Despite a 10 Percent Approval Rating?, summed it up nicely with this:
“Political parties are marketing organizations—brand names, teams complete with colors and mascots that serve the needs of the ambitious politicians and the special interests that fund them. They promote ideologies that are carefully framed to justify their actions, inflame voters by vilifying their opposition, and influence (manipulate) people to support them…. There is nothing about political parties that work for citizens, other than as a heuristic that simplifies a complex political world and makes voting decisions easier. Anyone can run as a Democrat or Republican, which means a party label means next to nothing. When voters rely on party labels they are in effect overlooking the candidates and freeing them of all accountability.”
The key to Phillips’ passage is how political parties simplify the decision-making process for voters. They leverage the power of familiarity in many ways. It’s not just the voter’s recognition of the candidate that wins the day, but rather their affinity with the candidate’s party or a connection to a particular hot button issue that riles the sensibilities of a passionate faction. With all the complexities of our modern society, political parties leverage the principle of familiarity to whittle the voting decision down to a yes or no question. The decision becomes: am I for this (person, position, issue, etc.) or against it?
This little tactic of influence makes it easier for voters to confirm an earlier “good” decision, identify the lesser of two evils, pick their favorite brand and ultimately keep the bums in office.
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