Ask The Experts: The Most Overlooked Factor In 2020's Elections

In an age of "super incumbency," retiring or running for higher office is far more common than losing at the polls. And one party does it more.
Posted at 12:21 PM, Oct 01, 2019

In December 1988, President Ronald Reagan lamented his gridlock with U.S. Congress and a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives by saying it was a virtually permanent chamber unresponsive to the people. The outgoing president quipped, "There is less turnover in the House than in the Supreme Soviet [of the USSR]."

As Professor Marvin Overby of the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy puts it, "There's some truth to that."

Overby studies congressional retirements — voluntary departures or running for a different office — and says right now, congressional retirements are pacing to be one of the most influential factors of the 2020 elections. And it affects one political party far more than the other.

The last time he thought that? 2018.

Already, 2020 has seen 20 congressional Republicans announce their retirement, their resignation or an intention to run for a different office. That compares to just five congressional Democrats.

"It really isn't the case that we decide when members of Congress should leave," says Overby. "We do not often vote them out of office. Most of the turnover in Congress on both sides of Capitol Hill, House and Senate, comes from the electoral decisions the members of Congress make themselves. The career decisions they make."

Overby's numbers show from 1972-2012, members of the House retired 1.4 times more often than they suffered electoral defeats (726 to 501). In the Senate, it was 1.6 retirements for every electoral defeat (141 to 89).

House Republicans are more likely to retire than House Democrats — 624 retirements to 566 from 1950-2018, according to Brookings Institution and the Center for Responsive Politics.

And that can have a big impact on a chamber so dominated by its majority party. Overby says a party's new candidate typically loses 5 to 6 percentage points at the polls compared to the incumbent's last election. And both the number of candidates and the amount spent on that race increases significantly, potentially weakening the party's efforts in other races.

It should be noted various groups tracking congressional retirements count them differently — i.e. counting members who died or resigned in the middle of their term. But Overby says these trends hold true regardless of the methodology in counting those less common circumstances.