The power of the incumbent Congress: So what?

Politifact is making a big deal today out of finding out this meme on social media is actually true.


To be consistent with the polling, which covers Congress broadly, we’ll lump together the incumbent winning percentages in both the House and Senate. There are a few contests still to be decided, but there are enough settled that we can make a pretty close count.

In the House, we counted 390 incumbents who ran on Election Day. Of those, four haven’t had their races called as of Nov. 10, so we’ll set them aside. Of the remaining 386 incumbents, 373 won, for a winning percentage of 96.6 percent.

If you add in three incumbents who ran but lost in primaries, the incumbent winning percentage drops to 95.9 percent.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, 23 out of 26 incumbents won, with one more (Alaska’s Mark Begich, a Democrat) trailing in a race that has not yet been called, and another (Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, also a Democrat) heading into a runoff.

There’s only one question unanswered: so what?

The fact so many polls showed a low job approval rating for Congress shows primarily the problem with polls: We don’t elect Congress, we elect one person to Congress. There’s not really a contradiction here.

It’s safe to say that not a single congressperson with an 11% job approval rating from his/her constituents was re-elected to office last week.

It’s only a puzzling situation if you establish a relationship between congressional approval ratings and congressional elections. There’s little evidence that such a thing exists.