Political Animal


November 02, 2012 9:43 AM Re-Shredding the “Incumbent Rule”

By Ed Kilgore

Scratch the surface of almost every projection of a late-developing Romney victory and you will probably find what used to be called “the incumbent rule,” the idea that late-deciding voters generally break against incumbent candidates. What’s ironic is how roles have reversed from the year the “rule” was first really cast into doubt: 2004, when John Kerry did not get the last-minute surge from undecideds that many liberals expected and Republicans scoffed at.

In any event, Mark Blumenthal has done a nice analysis of the “rule,” its demise, and its revival this year by Republicans looking for a thumb on the scales. Blumenthal also usefully offered the first theory I’ve heard for why the “incumbent rule” might have lost some accuracy recently:

Pollsters speculate that the the incumbent rule disappeared because of a change in the nature of campaigns since the ’80s and ’90s. Incumbent candidates have grown increasingly aggressive and are now far more willing to attack challengers early and often, so voters are making their decisions sooner and often on the basis of negative information about challengers.

That was certainly the pattern in this cycle, though something about Romney, or the attacks on him, clearly did make a significant number of voters open to “new information” about him, which is arguably why he got the significant bump after he reinvented himself in the first debate.

But now, when the final undecideds are making up their minds, there’s no particular reason to think the bulk of them are people who’ve already rejected Obama but are still watching those last Romney ads to decide if they’ll bother to vote at all. The “incumbent rule” always made more sense for down-ballot races where exposure to challengers occurred very, very late in the election cycle. The “real” Mitt Romney may still be a mystery, but most voters have made up their minds about him one way or another by now.

UPDATE: The idea that “aggressive incumbents” have neutered the “incumbent rule” was reinforced by Charlie Cook’s latest column on the race for National Journal:

If Obama ekes out an electoral-vote win, look back to last spring and summer, to the Romney campaign’s decision not to define him in a personal and positive way and the Obama campaign’s decision to roll the dice by spending an enormous amount of money to discredit Romney in the swing states, as the factors that led to the outcome.
Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on November 02, 2012 10:02 AM:

    "The “real” Mitt Romney may still be a mystery..."

    If he still is to some people, then they need to buy a clue, and if they can't afford one, they should ask for government assistance.

    Mitt Romney is a rich, spoiled, entitled, draft-dodging, war-loving, vulture capitalist, who would do anything for a buck, and would have gladly sold his father himself as fast as he sold his legacy out, and who will say and do anything to get elected President, and will do whatever he's told if he's elected.

    He has the moral's of a pit viper, and, if you're not with him and his, his bite will prove as lethal.

    He is a sociopathic cypher, who's out for himself.

    Is there anything I missed?

  • T2 on November 02, 2012 10:05 AM:

    the other "'incumbent rule" is that incumbent's usually win. Old Man Bush being the exception in the last 30 years.

  • max on November 02, 2012 10:06 AM:

    If I've seen anything (and I've read a lot of results from a lot of deep in the weeds races over the years), it seems to me that undecideds tend to break for the incumbent, unless the incumbent is a real dog. Sometimes they don't, but mostly they do.

    Incidental note: when reading all these articles about undecideds over the last couple of months, I've noticed there are a lot of R's or R's who say they're actually Libertarians who say they voted for O last time but this time they're thinking Romney. Now I expect some of that to be true - with a 100 million plus voters there have to be people switching back and forth or coming in off the sidelines. But when people write these stories, no one seems to remember the old study about how people remember voting. In particular, if all the people who remembered voting for Reagan had voted for Reagan, he would have won 70% of the vote or something.

    I suspect a lot of the undecideds I see in news stories that id as R's who say they voted for O last time but in fact voted for McCain.

    ['Dickerson's column from yesterday seemed like a prime example.']

  • sjw on November 02, 2012 10:07 AM:

    Even if there were such a "rule," the strong jobs report, Obama & Sandy, Romney's stance against FEMA, and Romney's anti-abortion stance would all tell against it. But, hey, let the Republicans fantasize all they want: it will only make the dashing of their hopes on Tuesday all the harder to bear.

  • Ronald on November 02, 2012 10:17 AM:

    When the presumptive 'Primary' season ends in like March or April, such as it did this year, there's much more opportunity to get to 'meet the candidate' than in the past.
    In even not so far past history, there wasn't a 24x7 news cycle, and there was usually some debate as to the candidate up to and near the conventions, which meant a much shorter general election cycle.
    Republicans are still operating, frequently, under the old models- well, actually they're operating under any model that gives them an apparent boost, accuracy be damned.

  • MuddyLee on November 02, 2012 10:25 AM:

    Why would the voters trust the challenger (Romney) to make the government work when he has done all he can to avoid paying federal income taxes? Does ANYBODY think there can be a balanced budget or even a functioning federal government if the richest people in America can get away with paying a federal income tax rate of 14 percent?

  • beejeez on November 02, 2012 11:27 AM:

    I'm wondering how much weight to put in any predictive generalizations based on electoral patterns of the past. Consider:

    -- Uncertainty about the effects of recent vote-suppression strategies
    -- Generalizations about voters based on their use/dependence on land lines vs. cell phones in polling
    -- The decreasing influence of newspapers and print media in general
    -- How web technologies affect voter mobilization
    -- The effects of TV advertising at oversaturation levels in swing states

    I have to say that right now neither an Obama landslide nor a Romney landslide would surprise me at all.

  • KadeKo on November 02, 2012 1:09 PM:

    Scratch the surface of every Republican victory and you'll find a media almost hand-picked to retcon every failed meme and Rovian gambit into "something that resonated with voters" in a "center right country".

    All the media demands of the GOP is that they win. The narratives will be constructed later from 100000 hours of Fox News.

  • Beglibelubava on December 22, 2012 11:23 AM:

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