The Myth of the Angry Voter


The voters are mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore.

In the wake of last week’s primaries, that is the conventional wisdom about the 2010 midterm elections among the Washington commentariat. Congressional incumbents of both parties are facing grave danger, the argument goes, as angry voters prepare to exact revenge at the polls.

This view of the midterms rests on three dubious claims. According to the political experts, public discontent is greater than at any time in recent memory, this discontent poses a serious threat to incumbents in primary elections, and the results of these primary races foretell far bigger problems for incumbents in November.

On closer inspection, however, none of these claims holds up.

First, though most Americans are not happy with the country’s condition, the level of discontent is not extraordinary compared with other recent election years. Consider 1968 (Vietnam), 1974 (Watergate), 1980 (U.S. hostages in Iran), 1982 and 1992 (recession), 1994 (Bill Clinton’s woes) and 2006 and 2008 (George W. Bush fatigue).

Second, the number of congressional incumbents facing serious primary challenges is not exceptionally high, and incumbent defeats have more likely been the result of special circumstances.

Third, there is little relationship between the results of congressional primaries and the results in November. Primary losses for some incumbents do not predict general election losses for others.

Claims that Americans are unusually dissatisfied with the country’s condition and with elected leaders have become so common that they tend to be accepted without any attempt to compare attitudes now with those in past election years. In fact, indicators of public mood show that Americans have been far more dissatisfied with the state of the nation and the performance of its leaders than they are today.

One important indicator is the president’s approval rating. After all, the president is by far the most visible national political leader — the one the public generally holds responsible for addressing the nation’s problems.

President Barack Obama’s approval rating has been hovering in the 45 percent to 50 percent range in the Gallup Poll for the past few months. Mediocre, yes. But far higher than Bush’s approval rating in his final years and higher than those of several other presidents in their second year — including Ronald Reagan and Clinton.

Moreover, the public’s satisfaction with the condition of the country has actually improved since Obama’s election. According to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll this month, 34 percent of Americans believe the country is headed in the right direction, considerably higher than the 11 percent who felt that way in November 2008.

So where is the evidence of exceptionally high public discontent?

Approval of Congress is low — but that’s not unusual. In any case, evaluations of Congress typically have little relation to the results of congressional elections.

Americans tend to dislike Congress, political scientist Richard Fenno noted more than 30 years ago, but that doesn’t stop them from reelecting their congressional incumbents at a very high rate.

One possible explanation for the popularity of the angry-voter meme is that while overall public discontent is not extraordinarily high, one group is extremely dissatisfied — Republicans.

Only 14 percent of Republicans are satisfied with the way things are going in America, according to Gallup, down from 26 percent in November 2008. The large majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents strongly disapprove of Obama’s performance as president.

It is irate Republicans who have been garnering most of the attention at town hall meetings and tea party rallies recently.

But what about all the incumbents facing difficult primary elections? Actually, the number of defeated and threatened incumbents does not look all that unusual. Thus far, only one House incumbent, Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), has been defeated in a primary. And only a handful appear to be facing serious challenges.

So the final number of House incumbents defeated in primaries may not be much bigger than the recent average of four in elections that did not follow redistricting.

While two longtime Senate incumbents — Republican Bob Bennett of Utah and Democrat Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania — were denied renomination, unusual circumstances contributed to both results. Bennett was defeated not in a primary but in a small party convention, dominated by conservative activists. Specter, 80, lost after having switched parties only 13 months before the vote.

Regardless of what happens in the remaining primaries, the number of defeated incumbents is unlikely to tell us much about November. That’s because primary results tend to reflect local factors far more than national political issues.

Some years in which many incumbents lost in primaries — like 1992 — did not see many incumbents losing in November. And other years in which many incumbents lost in November — like 1994 — did not see a large number losing in primaries.

This is not to deny that quite a few incumbents are likely to be out of work come January, most of them Democrats. It’s normal at midterm for the president’s party to lose seats — especially in the House.

The average loss since World War II is 26 House seats. Democrats could lose even more this year. That could be because they’ve gained more than 50 seats in the past two elections — many in districts that supported Bush or John McCain.

But the main reason Democrats are going to lose seats is because the districts are GOP leaning — and 2010 will be, to one degree or another, a good Republican year. Think party, not anger.

This article first appeared in POLITICO.