Monday, October 26, 2009

Is the Political Landscape Simply Unfavorable for Incumbents?

Summary: Local politicians and the dangers of incumbency - close proximity to voters can lead to victories for challengers.

Typically incumbents are the politicians with the least to worry about. The incumbency effect can often keep you in office for as long as you want because you have the name recognition, resources, and record to make you more credible than a challenger.

However, Politico reports in a new article that the current landscape - troubled by the impacts of the national recession - may simply be unfavorable for incumbents at the moment. Rather than starting in Virginia and New Jersey - which pundits are watching closely for their 2010 implications - the article points to the races that are not getting the same national attention: mayoral elections.

From the article:

Some incumbent mayors have already lost their races. Others have held on to win—or are likely to win next week—with greatly diminished margins from their previous re-election bids. Either way, local incumbents are bleeding badly after being buffeted by the pressures of high unemployment, low tax revenues and a volatile, impatient electorate…

…"People are lashing out, have less patience with the elected officials closest to them," said Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, the longest-serving mayor in city history and a former president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. "That kind of angst materializes either in walking away from the system or in deciding that whoever is up for election must have played some role, somehow, in some way, in the international financial crisis."…

…Tom Cochran, the executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, recently attended a mayors' conference in Seattle where he met with an alarmed group of city leaders.

"Many mayors have talked to me about—those that are not running and those that are running—sometimes how difficult it is to deal with people in ordinary places like coffee places, bars, churches," Cochran said. "They had great hopes for the stimulus, providing jobs, that's been late coming."

It's not just mayors who should be spooked, Cochran warned: "If I were a congressman I'd be looking at this baby right now, because they are going to hit reality when they go back home for Christmas."

Where are these anti-incumbent tendencies coming from?

The article continues:

[Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels’] defeat had little to do with partisan politics—both his rivals were Democrats. Seattle consultant Randy Bannecker suggested it emerged from the city's restive mood.

"It is sort of this combination of an interest in progressiveness, in progressive issues, coupled with a yearn for an anti-government or an outsider figure," Bannecker said. "You’d talk to people in various parts of the city, various constituencies; they couldn’t really articulate why they opposed [Nickels]."…

…Some veterans of mayoral politics caution against reading too much into the outcomes of local races. Instead of reflecting national trends, they argue, mayoral elections often have more to do with the mechanics of local government and the delivery of city services.

"There's a little bit of variety in these local races that makes generalization a bit problematic," said former Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith.

But while the national mood isn’t the sole factor driving mayor's races, Goldsmith acknowledged that those forces can help set the terms of the local debate.

Indeed, the city Goldsmith once governed was home to the most surprising mayoral upset of 2007, when Democratic Mayor Bart Peterson lost to an unknown and underfinanced Republican after a debate over property taxes spun out of control.

So will anger towards local incumbents mean a bad political landscape for Congressional or even state incumbents? We’ll have to wait until next November to really know for sure.

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