About that anti-incumbency story line

ABOUT THAT ANTI-INCUMBENCY STORY LINE…. Reviewing the media coverage of yesterday’s elections, it’s impossible to miss the dominant story line: incumbents are in deep trouble.

But is that the right interpretation, or is it the overly-simplistic conclusion of media outlets too quick to see developments through a preconceived lens? A longtime reader, whom I affectionately call “Morbo,” emailed this morning with a question, which I’m republishing with permission.

[I]s it just me or this “anti-incumbency” story line just something the media is determined to push? Look at the results:

PA: Yeah, Specter lost. He’s also 80 friggin years old and had switched parties. Huge mitigating factors.

KY: R. Paul, a right wing candidate in a state that trends right, won — in a race that did not feature an incumbent.

PA House: Again, no incumbent. And the guy close to the (albeit dead) incumbent won.

AR: Incumbent did not lose outright, forced into runoff.

It seems to me the media is just determined to push this “incumbents are threatened” line no matter what.

I’m quite sympathetic to this line of thinking. The “incumbents are in trouble” narrative is a little lazy, and has become something of a crutch for analysts.

In fairness, it’s not entirely baseless. News outlets are running with this story line in part because there’s a whole lot of polling data available, and all of it shows an angry electorate that hates the status quo and is ready to “throw the bums out.” Indeed, surveys show voters ready to vote against their own representatives at the highest levels since 1994 — and as I recall, that turned out to be an interesting year for shaking up Congress.

But it’s the nuances and details that poke some important holes in the “anti-incumbent” narrative. Specter didn’t struggle because he’s a sitting senator; he lost because he ran in a Democratic primary after serving as a Republican for 30 years — a Republican who backed Bush, Cheney, Santorum, McCain, and Palin. Lincoln’s career isn’t in jeopardy because she’s already in office; she’s in trouble because Democratic voters aren’t pleased with her voting record and aren’t convinced she can win in November.

Even among Republicans, the major shake-ups — in Kentucky, in Florida, in Utah — have very little to do with incumbency and a great deal to do with ideology.

The media’s rush to oversimplify things is consistent with how major outlets cover developments like these. It’s just what they do. But it also leads to unhelpful reporting that doesn’t fully capture the larger dynamic.

Put it this way: if yesterday’s results were really a signal that incumbents are in deep trouble, one would assume that Dems would be panicky today, since they’re in the majority. But the opposite is true — Republicans are reeling after setbacks in Kentucky and Pennsylvania, and Democrats are feeling increasingly optimistic.