Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 19, 2010

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.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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I think what you are seeing is the end of the politics of "triangulation." The information landscape that voters now have available to them allows to be motivated and informed like never before combined with the dread of two wars, terrorism, and economic recession. Candidates who look like they stand for nothing will lose -- regardless of party. Voters are now attracted to anyone who has core principles.

That extends to the right and left. Rand Paul won because he seemed to be the principled candidate. Sestak won because he was the principled candidate against the politician who wanted to do anything to save his seat. Halter forced a run off because Lincoln seemed like an unprincipled candidate. It's also why the White House is doing so poorly by appealing to centrists.

It's the commonality. Voters are informed, motivated, and unhappy -- on left and right. If you're out there trying to fight with them rather than placate them you're going to have a shot.

Posted by: Anon. on May 19, 2010 at 1:30 PM | PERMALINK

Also, pushing the 'anti-incumbency' meme is a favorite tactic of Republicans when they're out of power. I've seen this before. It typically favors their establishment. When they're in power, you never see the anti-incumbent push.

Posted by: JWK on May 19, 2010 at 1:32 PM | PERMALINK


Posted by: Nied on May 19, 2010 at 1:33 PM | PERMALINK

Solid analysis.

Posted by: Mick on May 19, 2010 at 1:37 PM | PERMALINK

When was the last election cycle where more than one U.S. Senator lost in his/her own primary?

Thirty years ago.

And it's possible Lincoln and McCain will still lose.

Two to five Senators losing their own primaries? This seems significant.

Posted by: Carl Nyberg on May 19, 2010 at 1:39 PM | PERMALINK

Anon: I don't think the increasingly crowded information landscape is necessarily resulting in a more informed voter, and polls testing knowledge of the issues would seem to support me on that. It does, however, create a more emotional voter.

So informed, no. Unhappy, absofreakinglutely. Willing to examine, confront and seek lasting solutions to the unhappiness? Not so much.

About the only commonality we're seeing right now is extreme jumpiness. People across the political spectrum are nervous about a lot of things: the economy, the world political situation, terrorism, environmental threats, shrinking opportunity, healthcare, challenges to their perceived security (from financial to racial and everything in between). But there's no real agreement about what to do about it at the polls. Right now, it seems, people are simply reacting.

Posted by: shortstop on May 19, 2010 at 1:51 PM | PERMALINK

I mentioned this below. Bob Bennett in Utah is 76. And he was never dynamic. Yes, ideology beat him; so did big $$ from outside the state. And he promised to serve only two terms. Ooops. End of term 3. Someone on the far right could count to 18. Oh - the state convention system enabled 0.18% of the registered voters, and about 0.08% of all citizens of the state, to turf him.

But [gnashing of teeth here] some MSM outlets still refer to the results of the Republican "primary" in Utah. Actually, the primary will be on June 22, to select between the two candidates who emerged from the state convention. Both anti-everything conservatives, to be sure, but also 20-30 yrs younger than Bennett ....

Posted by: bigutah on May 19, 2010 at 1:52 PM | PERMALINK

Two to five Senators losing their own primaries? This seems significant.
Posted by: Carl Nyberg on May 19, 2010

Bennett - Republican
McCain - Republican
Specter - Ex-Republican who switched parties because he had no chance anymore within the GOP
Lincoln - DINO

There's change brewing alright, and it smells strongly of TEA mixed with a hint of corporate cash.

Posted by: oh my on May 19, 2010 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

Re mine of 1:51: That's not to say, BTW, that people are ever non-emotional voters. All of politics involves touching people where we really feel stuff. But when times get tough and threats multiply, people tend to react more strongly -- and much more quickly -- on a visceral level.

Posted by: shortstop on May 19, 2010 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

The media has a narrative and they are sticking to it. The one thing that got to me was the serious declarations from the pundits that President Obama did not do enough for Arlen Specter. No matter what happens, there has to be a way to find a negative slant for the Obama administration. But the nonsense about Arlen Specter is over the top.

Arlen Specter is 80 years old. He has been in congress for about 30 years. He has had two bouts with cancer. He was a Democrat, then a Republican and back to being a Democrat again. He ran negative ads about Joe Sestak's military service that backfired. He slipped up and thanked the Republicans for their support while he was at a Democratic event. He is cantankerous. He is more establishment than Sestak. He said out loud in front of microphones and cameras that he was switching parties because he could not get elected running as a Republican against Pat Toomey. Sestak ran devastating ads that linked Specter to President Bush and questioned his party switching.

It is clear that all politics is local. The people of Pennsylvania made their decision. Specter didn't run a great campaign. Even with that, the media has to say that President Obama should have campaigned during the last days to push Specter across the finish line. In the end, endorsements don't really carry that much weight.

There was a diary at dailykos that summed it up for me. The title was "News Flash: President Obama Can't Save Your Campaign". The best line from the diary was: If the candidates cannot sell themselves, how the hell do they expect President Obama to do it?


Posted by: Ladyhawke on May 19, 2010 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

Why is it impossible for our modern media to consider that maybe, just maybe, people voted the way they did based on ideology, issues and positions?

The media will consider ANY alternative -- oh, the voters didn't like the incumbent's tie, the voters only like black women between 5 1/2 and 6 feet tall, the voters had bad sushi for lunch -- rather than entertain the possibility that the voters take their responsibility and their country seriously, and vote accordingly.

I assume it's because the media doesn't take any of those things seriously. It's all a game to them, so it must be to us too.

Posted by: Gummo on May 19, 2010 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

One odd aspect to the last few months has been the significant polling moves made by successful candidates in the weeks and days before election. Scott Brown made his move late. So did Sestak. Until recently the Republicans thought they had a really good shot in PA 12, at least that is what all the smart kids were saying. I would think the polling would be better further out. Has something changed? What is with all these Silky Sullivan races.

Posted by: Ron Byers on May 19, 2010 at 2:11 PM | PERMALINK
Steve: "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."

Well, your analysis doesn't dovetail with Howard Fineman's comments last night on MSNBC, in which he said Democrats can only pray that they'll survive the coming GOP tsunami in November. But since he's on TV regularly and you're not, who are you to offer your opinion on such matters? So there.

(Poster sticks tongue out and blows raspberry. Cue laughtrack.)

But seriously, I think Howard Fineman last night was once again pushing a terribly unimaginative storyline that's wholly representative of that lazy opining you're talking about.

And speaking of byproducts of lazy thinking, the GOP has gotten increasingly beholden to its fringe elements, to a point where its political fortunes now mostly ride on the far-white wing's ability to impose its will upon squishy center-right moderates without sending those moderates running for the hills.

As evidenced by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's recent decision to leave the GOP and run for the U.S. Senate as an independent, that doesn't seem to be working to well, does it?

Further, as citizens start to see some measure of improvement to the economy during the remainder of the spring and throughout the summer, any anger curently felt amongst moderates will inevitably dissipate, if only for the reason that perpetual outrage is exhausting emotionally.

The GOP in that regard has peaked too soon, and by this fall, Republicans will have little to show for their sustained efforts at fostering resentment amongst the so-called "silent Majority," save for compiling a well-documented track record of remarkably foolish public statements over the last two years.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on May 19, 2010 at 2:45 PM | PERMALINK

Whew. Good to see someone else sees it as I do. Incumbency? Nope. Steve also sees the Republicans as peaking. That's probably right, too.

There are an awful lot of energized progressives out there today. Nice change.

Posted by: pw on May 19, 2010 at 2:51 PM | PERMALINK

I call what we're seeing "The Palin Effect." Look at what happened to McCain's campaign. Before he announced his running mate he was losing in the polls, but not by a lot. He announced his running mate and his numbers immediately jumped. Her pre-Bagging rhetoric really got them motivated and chanting. Ultra-conservative Mc-skeptics were pleased to see a popular, attractive woman espousing policies typically reserved for old white fundamentalist men.

Then the conservatives with mild brain activity, who were already in McCain's camp, started to listen to what she was actually saying and got spooked. They pulled their support and the poll numbers dropped.

After the election, a lot of us predicted the fracturing of the GOP. And sure enough, that's what we're seeing now. Yes, they've made a lot of noise in the past year. But the din that was mistaken for enthusiasm turned out to be hollering.

Posted by: chrenson on May 19, 2010 at 2:51 PM | PERMALINK

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

Jeez Steve, the media meme doesn't have to be true...and very frequently isn't.

Posted by: ckelly on May 19, 2010 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

The High Broderism Alert Level remains at blazing fire engine red, despite not hearing much of it this morning.

I'm bracing for a tsunami of "party activists are eliminating the sensible middle" opinioneering from the usual suspects.

Posted by: Quaker in a Basement on May 19, 2010 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

I think even the "anti-establishment" thing isn't terribly well demonstrated in Specter's loss.

It seems ridiculously obvious that one of the things Specter got for switching parties was a commitment from Obama and the Democratic establishment that they would support his re-election.

Unless they decided to publicly backstab him they had to support his campaign, even if they thought he would lose or preferred his opponent to win.

Fact is PA democrats didn't want to elect Specter to be their Senator, and they weren't part of the deal that got him to switch parties so they didn't have to support him.

Only the very stupidest would interpret democratic establishment support of Specter as real endorsement because it was obviously bought and paid for.

This doesn't mean we know if they really supported him or just did what they agreed to do. It means we can't know unless they don't and several of them slip up and tell reporters about it which is fairly unlikely.

Posted by: JeffF on May 19, 2010 at 3:08 PM | PERMALINK

Still, "the incumbents are in trouble" line is an amazing piece of intellectual honesty compared to the "Democrats are in trouble in November" story which goes on despite the fact that the Democrats have won seven out of the last seven by-elections.

Posted by: john sherman on May 19, 2010 at 3:22 PM | PERMALINK

This is how TV news works. Every story must be teased as the biggest this, or the worst that. When the actual story comes close to the tease, it's a ratings bonanza. When not, which is most of the time, it's swiftly swept down the memory hole by the next biggest or worst thing ever.

My evidence is completely subjective, but it seems to me that '94 was the only time when 'throw the bums out' polling truly coincided with voting results. It should also be remembered that in '94 no one recognized what right wing radio was about, or how influential it might be. For Dems, it was a huge, unrecognized (let alone solved,) problem. A prime barking point on AM radio was the unfair incumbent advantage. Their proof was that no matter how often the polls showed a public desire to 'throw the bums out', they never did so. So, I take those polls with salt.

The other thing our stick to the script pundits don't get is the entirely different shake ups that are happening in the two parties. I see no ideological purge within the Democratic party. What I see from progressives is a demand for more spine. They want to see the party stand up to bad ideas where they had been too fearful of the right wing noise machine in the past.

On the other side, it's a whole different game. It's the unhinged and over-hyped audience of AM radio and FOXNews getting active and pulling the republican party to where it knows it should not go. It's a formalization of Beck and Limbaugh's role as defacto leaders of the republican party.
Those guys may have huge ratings dominance in their media. But their audience is a very small, if noisy, slice of the overall electorate.

I expect the repubs will make modest gains in both houses this Nov. But it will be so far short of their boasts as to look like a humiliating defeat.

Posted by: JoeW on May 19, 2010 at 3:28 PM | PERMALINK

Woohoo, Morbo!! Welcome back, bro, you were missed. The Carpetbagger Report forever!!! (stompa stompa stompa)

Posted by: Curmudgeon on May 19, 2010 at 3:29 PM | PERMALINK

Dems in Pennsylvania are simply tickled with election results, and have great optimism.
Plus ever since Glenn Beck spoke at Liberty University commmencement, and told the young graduates to "shoot to kill, " local republicans see him as an unstable man, an extremist.
And local fellows all know someone who served under Joe Sestak, or know of him, calling him a wonderful human being, a great person, a remarkable man.

Posted by: PA GIRL on May 19, 2010 at 8:15 PM | PERMALINK
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