To Understand the Wave of Retirements in Congress, Look at the Data
With his announcement this afternoon that he would not be seeking re-election this November, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) became the 23rd incumbent Republican member of the House or Senate to voluntarily retire in the last twelve months. (For the purposes of this analysis, we will consider a “voluntary” retirement from Congress to mean one dictated neither by scandal nor aspiration for higher political office or a role in the Trump administration.) By contrast, only five sitting Democrats have opted, voluntarily, not to have their names on the ballot during the 2018 mid-term election.
This phenomenon is more striking beyond the top-line numbers. Roughly one-third of those Republicans who have opted against seeking re-election are currently committee chairs; coveted positions on Capitol Hill replete with influence and power that many members spend careers trying to secure. And, if one looks at the states from which many of these voluntary retirees hail – California, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Washington, New Jersey – a common thread begins to develop: these are elected members of the Republican Party from states that are, generally speaking, reliably Democratic. But they’ve each won election at least once, and in the vast majority of cases, have represented their districts for many years, so why the sudden exodus? One word: data.
Mid-term election performance is, traditionally speaking, pretty awful for the party who controls the White House. Many pundits – and some psychologists – have devoted significant time and energy to determining why the President’s party generally underperforms just two years after the very same voters elected him to office on a policy platform nearly identical to that on which members of Congress from his party are running for re-election. These pundits have waxed poetic as to why, as a culture, we tend to routinely reject the very policies most of us supported just 24 months earlier. In the interest of time, suffice to say: mid-term elections are the electoral equivalent of buyer’s remorse.
As we begin a mid-term election year, there are two key data points that suggest that November is shaping up to be a difficult go for the Republican Party. First, let’s take a look at the correlation between the Democratic Party’s net generic ballot favorability – the percent of voters polled who support a generic Democrat over a generic Republican – in every mid-term election since 1986, and the resulting gain or loss of seats for the Democrats in the House of Representatives:
Only once in the last 32 years has there been an indirect relationship between voters’ general preference for a Democratic candidate over a Republican candidate and a gain of seats for the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives. Moreover, when Democrats last won control of the House in 2016, their net generic ballot favorability advantage stood at 10%, a full 2.2 percentage points lower than the latest polling shows this number stands today. Democrats won 31 seats in 2006. They need to win only 24 to secure a majority in the House in 2018.
The other key factor that significantly influences the outcome of mid-term elections is, of course, the President’s approval rating. Generally speaking, if voters believe that the President is doing a good job, they are much more likely to send to Congress members of his party who will presumably continue to enact the policies he has been pursuing. What is shocking, however, is just how popular a President must be in order to carry his party to victory in the mid-terms:
Over the last 56 years, to increase his party’s power in Congress in the mid-term elections, the occupant of the White House has needed to hold an approval rating over 60%. Even then, the President’s party could expect only very minimal gains. By contrast, Commanders in Chief who enjoyed the approval of a majority of Americans have historically seen pretty sizeable losses for their party in the House, and those Presidents whose approval ratings were under water have seen cataclysmic mid-terms, as was the case when the Democrats lost 64 seats in the House – and their majority – in 2010. For reference, President Trump’s aggregated job approval rating as of the most recent polling stands at 39.8%.
November is, without question, a long way away and so much can and will happen in Washington and the world that will influence the outcome of the mid-term elections between now and then. But the wave of retirements among incumbent Republican members of Congress is reflective of a growing concern within the GOP – supported by historical data – that this November is going to be difficult for the Republican Party.