Down the Ballot

Monday, July 28, 2014

Incumbent Actually Loses. Everyone Shocked.

So the big news out of the 2014 Oregon May Primary was the defeat of State Representative Jim Thompson, a Republican who represents the City of Dallas and other rural communities in Polk and Benton counties...well he'll represent these communities for a few more months. A lot of people were somewhat surprised by this outcome. He was defeated in the primary by Mike Nearman. The details of why incumbent Thompson was defeated and the issues that local Republicans weighed their decisions on is not as important as the misread of us in the political sphere and the 'shock' and surprise most people are having that an incumbent lost renomination.

I participated in a little game that deals with folks predicting and making educated guesses on various political races around the state. The person who gets the most races called correctly gets some bragging rights. This was probably the race that most people called incorrectly. So why did so many smart people pick Thompson to win, when in fact he lost 63-37?  We can toss in easy answers like 'Democrats don't pay enough attention to GOP politics or Thompson just lost 'touch' with party voters.



Far more than any of those answers, I think it has just been ingrained in us that incumbents; regardless of party, just don't lose that often. We're baffled when it happens, when we probably shouldn't be if we were really paying attention to the voters.

 Let's look some Oregon House races from 2004-2014 A decade of races. 60 per cycle.

2014 only five incumbents were challenged in party primaries. 2 Democrats and 3 Republicans
2012 only two incumbents were challenged. 1 Democrat and 1 Republicans
2010 only five incumbents were challenged. 1 Democrat and 4 Republicans
2008 only three incumbents were challenged. 3 Republicans
2006 only three incumbents were challenged. 2 Democrats and 1 Republicans
2004 an amazing nine incumbents were challenged. 4 Democrats and 5 Republicans

I might have missed one or two, but in each cycle fewer than 10 incumbents are challenged in the primary..and even fewer lose. Aside from Jim Thompson, I could only think of two actual incumbents losing in the primary. Again, I might have missed some, but Vic Backlund and Mike Schaufler come to mind as prime examples. I don't think though that people were shocked when Backlund or Schaufler lost like they were with Thompson.

Now a few weeks later out in Virginia's 7th Congressional district Republican Eric Cantor loses a primary to a more conservative Tea Party challenger David Brat. Did Cantor lose because he wasn't conservative enough?

So why did Cantor and Thompson lose their respective races? They didn't turn out their voters. No matter how much money is spent, as Cantor proved, it all comes down to your GOTV (Get out the Vote). Did you ask people for their votes and did you get them to turn out for you? It is clear Cantor and Thompson didn't. I think apart of our surprise of incumbents losing is that we some how naturally expect incumbents to be natural GOTV machines. Brat didn't have the money, but his organization was clearly superior at getting people to the polls.

Several news stories after the Cantor-Brat race cited Cantors internal polling that showed him leading. Don't let polls mislead you. It is far easier to tell a pollster that you plan to vote than actually going out to vote (especially if you don't live in Oregon with vote by mail). I know the answer sounds too simple to be the only factor. I agree, all the other events, media, and pressures from things beyond a campaigns influence helped defeat these incumbents. Add on top of all those factors; with poor organization and you get yourself the perfect storm that will sweep any incumbent out of office.We've been hearing reports of possible false or misleading campaign tactics from supporters of Thompson's primary challenger in HD 23. Still, for whatever reasons both incumbents failed to turn out their voters. There should be no surprise what happens to an incumbent when they fail to do that.

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