Many news outlets contend that the results of Tuesday's elections indicate voter anger against incumbents (see, e.g., here, here, here and here). But it is not clear that this is true.
Because no exit poll data exist, no one can truly document that a substantial number of voters acted out of hostility towards incumbents -- or even towards perceived "Washington insiders." Furthermore, other factors, such as ideology, were clearly relevant in some of the contests. Moreover, despite the pervasive rhetoric regarding an anti-incumbent fervor, only one incumbent actually lost a reelection bid yesterday.
In Pennsylvania, Joe Sestak defeated veteran Senator Arlen Specter in the Democratic primary. Specter is the only actual incumbent politician who lost a re-election bid on Tuesday.
Specter's defeat, however, probably has a lot to do with him running for the first time as a Democratic candidate. In 2009, Specter switched to the Democratic Party after it became clear that he would probably lose the Republican primary -- due to his support for the stimulus package.
Although Sestak characterized Specter as a career politician, Specter's previous party affiliation and political record probably played a large role in his defeat. A political party's base typically has more power in primaries than in general election contests. Specter simply could not convince faithful Democrats to choose him over a lifetime Democrat. This does not mean that Specter's incumbent status was irrelevant to his defeat, but it probably means that the media commentators are overstating the significance of incumbency to his loss.
Pennsylvania also held a special election to fill the House seat of the late John Murtha. Democrats, the incumbent party, kept this seat. Mark Critz, a former aide to Murtha, defeated challenger Tim Burns.
In Kentucky, Rand Paul won the Republican senate primary, defeating Trey Grayson. Paul, the son of Texas representative Ron Paul, is a doctor, while Grayson is the Kentucky Secretary of State. Neither candidate was even an incumbent -- although Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell endorsed Grayson. This has led many commentators to describe Paul's victory as a defeat of the Washington establishment.
The Kentucky Republican contest, however, likely turned primarily on ideological grounds. The Tea Party movement, which has more pull among Republican primary voters than among the general electorate, endorsed Paul, who ran to the right of Grayson. Some Democrats even wanted Paul to win, believing that the majority of voters in the state will not endorse his political views in November.
On the Democratic side, Attorney General Jim Conway defeated Lt. Governor Daniel Mongiardo in a tight senate primary. This contest simply does not fit within the anti-incumbent narrative, and most media have not tried to describe the race in those terms.
In Oregon, incumbent Representatives David Wu and Ron Wyden won their primary elections by wide margins. Incumbent House Democrat Kurt Schrader was unopposed. No incumbents lost in Oregon.
Arkansas provides the only other possible evidence of anti-incumbent fervor. Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln faces a run-off election against challenger Lt. Governor Bill Halter. Lincoln had support from former President Bill Clinton and President Obama. Lincoln, however, could not get a majority of the votes in the 3-way contest -- although currently she has won more votes than her challengers.
This race does not represent the defeat of an incumbent because Lincoln has not lost. Furthermore, the results have a lot to do with ideology and political organizing. Halter ran to the left of Lincoln, who became the target of liberal anger due to her centrist positions. Labor unions, in particular, fought hard to defeat Lincoln by pumping a substantial amount of money into the state. These factors undoubtedly influenced the results of the election.
On the Republican side, a 9-year House Republican defeated 7 challengers to take the Republican nomination. This race simply does not substantiate the popular anti-incumbent narrative, nor does it prove voter anger against establishment candidates. The "Washington insider" won.
If very little evidence connects Tuesday's election results with anti-incumbent fervor, why are so many media outlets running with the idea? Well, this narrative probably sounds more exciting than the truth. It is also easier to explain -- even if it is unsupportable by facts. Many persons in the news media have proven their ability to trade truth for excitement in the past. There they go again.
Update: Other bloggers have expressed dissenting opinions on this subject. See: The Death Of Independence and Anti-Incumbency Not the Issue.