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Americans Want to Fire Their Congressmen. Here’s Why They Won’t

We may not approve of the jobs they're doing, but we're also unlikely to take a risk by replacing our elected representatives—especially when economic times are tough.


You know things are going poorly for Congress when pollsters abandon their implicit goal of discovering useful information and instead give us link-bait about how our elected officials compare (spoiler: not well) to universally hated things like dog poop, hemorrhoids, toenail fungus, and Honey Boo Boo.

When the dust settles in early November 2014, though, most Congressmen will still have their jobs. If case you've forgotten, last year Americans showed their displeasure with Congress by re-electing 90 percent of incumbents.

Why won't voters follow through on the displeasure they’re so eager to report?

When the economy is weak, higher risk aversion helps incumbents. Given that we're still waiting for a true economic recovery, incumbents ought to get another boost in 2014.

Perhaps the most discouraging explanation comes from a new study led by David Eckles of the University of Georgia. The study explores how individual risk aversion—as measured by the desire to avoid financial risks—influences the tendency to vote for an incumbent. Eckles found that in both the 2008 and 2010 congressional elections voters who were more risk averse were more likely to support an incumbent. The effect was strongest among independent voters, and, surprisingly, it held even when controlling for factors such as partisanship and campaign spending.

Why is risk aversion important? Because research has shown that economic downturns make people more risk averse. A recent study (PDF) found that Italian investors became more risk averse after the 2008 crisis, and that a general feeling of fear made people less willing to take risks. A study (PDF) released in 2009 examined U.S. survey data from 1964 to 2004 and found that people who experienced lower stock market returns during their lives were less likely to take risks. These findings are backed up by a survey released in August that showed that people between the ages of 24 and 35 are now more risk averse than they were in 2007.

The implication is somewhat depressing. If politicians allow the economy to deteriorate, the resulting increase in risk aversion could make many voters more likely to support delinquent incumbents. That's not to say sabotage is a good electoral strategy. Job and income growth will always be the most important factors. But it would seem that regardless of performance, the economy mitigates its own impact on the election by altering the level of risk aversion in society. When the economy is strong, lower risk aversion harms incumbents. When the economy is weak, higher risk aversion helps incumbents. Given that we're still waiting for a true economic recovery, incumbents ought to get another boost in 2014.

Increased risk aversion isn't the only reason to doubt that a congressional exodus is forthcoming. Poll numbers may paint a unique and snark-worthy picture, but they don't tell the whole story.

When you hear that 80 percent of voters disapprove of Congress, it could be a result of 40 percent of them disapproving of Democrats and another 40 percent disapproving of Republicans. Even a poll showing that three-quarters of voters disapprove of Congressional Republicans likely overstates the degree to which such disapproval will carry over to Election Day. Just as the number of people opposed to the Affordable Care Act includes a chunk of critics from the left who believe the law does not go far enough, the group that disapproves of the GOP likely contains people who believe the party isn't doing enough to combat Obama's agenda.

Incumbents also posses a variety of structural advantages. Researchers have found that they tend to be higher quality candidates, in part because they have already run in and won an election (PDF), and in part because the difficulty of unseating an incumbent often drives away high-quality challengers (PDF). There is also research demonstrating that incumbents have an easier time raising the necessary funds and serving constituents, and there is even evidence that suggests incumbents benefit because they have access to free postage. (The extremely underrated term for these benefits is "Franking Privileges.")

All of this considered, the news isn't great for incumbents. Some of their advantages ought to translate into higher poll numbers, and so dismal approval ratings do provide reason to think 2014 will be a bad year for them. The high incumbent re-election rate is also a function of strategic retirements by the most vulnerable, and so there could be a lot of turnover even without electoral defeats.

But make no mistake: Replacing an elected representative is an uphill climb. The best you can do is recruit a good candidate, raise a lot of money, and try and paint your opponent's re-election as a bigger risk than your flawless focus-group tested policy platform. Even if everybody sticks to that script in 2014, don't be surprised if 90 percent of incumbents find themselves victoriously telling a reporter how voters knew they couldn't risk picking the other guy.