Given the historically low approval ratings of the current Congress—and House Republicans in particular—it’s not unreasonable to think that the chamber as a whole is in for an electoral reckonning next November. For my part, I’ve predicted a complete flip; anti-incumbent sentiment would drive Americans to eject House Republicans and Senate Democrats, leaving Democrats with a majority in the House and Republicans with one in the Senate. What’s more, this anti-incumbent wave would result in GOP control of the White House, as voters reject President Obama for his performance on the economy.
Writing for the Crystal Ball, political scientist Alan Abramowitz tears this idea to pieces. “There has never been a triple flip election and there is not going to be one in 2012,” he writes. Despite the fact that anti-incumbent sentiment is a regular occurrence in American political life, the United States has never seen an anti-incumbent election. Abramowitz provides two charts that illustrate this fact. The first shows the relationship between Democratic and Republican incumbent defeats in House elections, from 1954 to 2010:
The second shows the relationship between incumbent defeats in Senate elections, during the same period:
There have been seven elections since 1954 in which at least 30 House incumbents were defeated: 1958, 1964, 1966, 1974, 1980, 1994 and 2010. Of the 279 House incumbents defeated in those seven elections, 263 or 94% were from the party that experienced a net seat loss in the election. Similarly, of the 32 Senate incumbents defeated in those seven elections, 31 or 97% were from the party that experienced a net seat loss in the election.
In other words, “anti-incumbent” waves are reserved for one party or the other, never both. The implications for 2012 are straightforward: The public’s distaste for Congress will either become a distaste for Republicans or a distaste for Democrats. If it becomes the former, then the GOP could lose its House majority, as well as its shot at the Senate and the White House. But if it’s the latter—given the slim Democratic majority in the Senate—we can look forward to a unified Republican government in 2013.