Up and down the ballot, incumbents are winning ugly.
Time was, a politician with approval numbers well below 50 percent was in deep trouble come Election Day.
But in politics, 40 has become the new 50.
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Last’s week election saw a slew of unpopular politicians get elected or reelected despite approval ratings in the mid- or even low-40s. It’s in part a product of voter disgust with both parties and a race-to-the-bottom political climate, in which both sides nuke their rival early and often and public opinion of Congress and institutions is extremely low.
According to Democratic and Republican pollsters and operatives, over the last several election cycles there’s been an erosion of the political equivalent of baseball’s “Mendoza Line” – the batting average (.200) that signifies serious problems if a player falls below it.
While there have been politicians in the past who have been reelected with weak approval ratings, the spate of tight races with people with a net negative favorable ratings was unusual this cycle. Instead of punishing the candidate who goes negative first, voters have become inured to the idea that both of them will. And approval ratings are no longer a reliable indicator of electability.
In “today’s politics, the hyper-partisanship and the huge campaign spending, has permanently warped our old understanding of political norms,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, of Public Opinion Strategies.
For the most part, last Tuesday’s elections were an anti-Democrat referendum, a contrast to 2012, when the sentiment was more broadly anti-incumbent. But that year became a template for the 2014 races: President Obama, plagued by approval ratings below 50 percent, began an early, blistering — and ultimately successful — assault on eventual Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
This time around, there were a handful of Democrats with a below-50 percent approval rating who held on – Dan Malloy in Connecticut and John Hickenlooper in Colorado. In the Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling’s final survey, Hickenlooper’s approval rating was underwater by 8 points, with 40 percent approval and 48 percent disapproval. He edged out Republican Bob Beauprez, 49-46.
Malloy was at 43 percent approval, 49 percent disapproval before the election. He won, 51-48.
And in Illinois, Republican Bruce Rauner had a dismal 39 percent favorable rating in an October PPP poll, with his negative rating at 42 percent. But that was better than Democratic incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn, who had a 31 percent positive rating vs. 54 percent negative. Rauner’s 51-46 win was one of the election night upsets.
Such a state of affairs would have been unheard of a decade ago. Strategists on both sides of the political aisle would say an incumbent needed to be at 50 percent in order to survive.
Heading into Tuesday’s election, almost no incumbent was at that magic number.
“The general anger and polarization of the voters does not allow for most incumbents, even those in relatively safe districts, to easily achieve the magic 50 percent Mendoza line for incumbent safety anymore,” said Democratic pollster Jef Pollock, who has done work for gubernatorial and House candidates in recent cycles.
“I think our standards for somebody’s [political] standing have changed,” added Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg. “In the past, being below 50 on job approval would spell doom, and now you’re going to have a lot of people elected below 50.”
The change reflects a general disgust among the electorate with both parties, and with government in general.
“A lot of people in general are cynical and disappointed,” Greenberg said. “Cynical about, and disappointed in, our political system. They don’ think anyone really has answers to the problems that face the country.”
For most of the final sprint of the midterms, nearly a dozen Senate contests were locked in tight races with a decent percentage of undecided voters, who ultimately broke toward the Republican candidate.
But many of the races – mostly at the Senate level, but some gubernatorial contests — were marked by incumbents and challengers who both had high negatives.
“I think what you’re seeing is a reflection of the campaigns … when you’re not doing anything to improve your own personal standing and it’s all about how bad the other person is, then it’s not a race about who has the highest favorables, but it’s a race about who has the highest negatives,” said Republican pollster David Winston.
No two races epitomized that trend more than the Arkansas Senate race between incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor and Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, and the Iowa race between Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst for the open seat being vacated by Tom Harkin.
Both races became ugly early in the year, and both Ernst and Braley were below 50 percent favorability heading into the fall. So were Pryor and Cotton, whose negative ratings were high early on but who managed to gain ground on the incumbent and improve his standing over time.
In Kansas, where Republican Sen. Pat Roberts struggled mightily against independent Greg Orman, the incumbent went into election day with a net negative rating of 20 points — 34 favorable, 54 unfavorable — according to Public Policy Polling. Roberts won by more than 10 points, 53 to 42.5.
In Florida’s gubernatorial race between former governor Charlie Crist and incumbent Rick Scott, negative ads flooded the airwaves for most of the year. Heading into the election, both men had roughly a 42 percent favorability rating in public and private surveys. Scott eked out a 1-point win, 48-47.
“There is a direct correlation to the level and amount of negative ads and lowering of the ‘Mendoza Line’ of image and job approval needed for a candidate or incumbent to be successful,” said Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio.
Greenberg said it isn’t that getting to 50 percent is impossible, but “it’s a different formula than it used to be.”
Generally speaking, it’s more difficult for candidates in divided House districts or states to hit the 50 percent approval mark.
Despite the downward trend, there is one basic law of politics that hasn’t changed, McInturff said.
“You do not have to have great numbers to win,” he said, “you just have to have better numbers than your opponent.”