It’s every politician’s worst nightmare. They wake up in the morning to find negative stories trending about them on Twitter. Angry comments, calls, emails from their constituents flood the airwaves.
The PR team is assembled with one goal; squash the approaching firestorm.
While this may be a drastic representation, it feels like this scene is playing out more and more in our 24-hour news cycle. Outrage for our politicians' actions is the new normal and one would assume that when it’s time to head to the voting booths we would see blood and carnage as incumbent after incumbent gets voted out of office.
The reality however is that’s not happening. In fact, incumbency re-election rates are going up, not down!
And the numbers back this up.
In 2016, 379 of 387 incumbents contesting the congressional general election won their races. That amounts to an incumbency re-election rate of 98%, which unbelievably is almost 2 percentage points higher than the re-election rate for 2014 congressional incumbents.
Those incumbents held an 11% approval rating in those elections.
So, that begs the question; how can incumbents continually underperform while in office yet get re-elected at such a high rate? And furthermore, with all the high-profile outrage, how is the re-election rate of incumbents actually increasing?
There have been many attempts to explain this phenomenon, many of which point to name recognition and funding power for incumbents. This makes sense, especially in larger elections where the major parties know that citizens heading to the voting booths have very little information to go off beyond just a name.
That’s why parties and politicians spend so much on advertising to ensure name recognition at the polls. A system like this doesn’t bode well for potential upstarts or independents who don’t enjoy the familiarity that comes with incumbency or party affiliation.
Another reason for this lack of correlation between approval ratings and incumbency re-election is that the 24-hour news cycle is moving so fast that shock and outrage stories become too commonplace, therefore desensitizing citizens to the impact of each negative story.
Take a second and think about your Facebook or Twitter feeds over the past year and see if you can recall a negative political story in February that really angered you.
If you’re like me, that’s difficult because those memories have been washed away with the multitude of outrage stories that have taken place since then.
As news moves faster and faster, desensitization to bad press will be the new normal. My guess is that politicians know this as well and know the keys to fighting a negative story are to weather the storm.
They understand that the eye of the media will shift quickly to something else and that confusion and prolongation have replaced penitence and explanation as the PR tools of choice.
By the time citizens get to the polls, new stories have distracted them away from being able to remember the very transgressions of the people for whom they are voting.
To relinquish the grasp incumbents have over elections, any potential solution would need to allow lesser known brands (read: challengers) to compete on an even playing field and append poor performance to the established brands (read: incumbents).
The good news is we have proven case studies of how the digital phenomena of online ratings sites have disrupted industries with established, generally under-performing leaders and I think the ratings site’s merits, when applied to politics, will be truly transformative.
These days it’s hard to imagine buying a product, hiring a plumber, or eating at a restaurant before checking the rating on the many various sites built for consumers of most industries. Yet surprisingly, there is not really a go-to site to rate your politicians.
And yet, there does seem to be demand for something like this.
A quick search on Google Trends showed that the search term “rate government“ jumped in popularity from an interest score of 37 at the end of 2016 to a perfect 100 in April of this year. That number has held steady at around 50 since.
Even more telling is that over the past 5 years, the interest score builds up each year to November and then drops off precipitously the following months, only to build again during the next election cycle.
While this may be a bit unscientific it does show that people are looking for any and all information they can find on politicians, especially during the election windows.
Unfortunately, a quick search on Google also shows that searches such as “rate my politicians” lead to now-defunct, low-tech solutions of the past, and not much else.
Now that we know that there appears to be some demand from citizens for ratings in politics, the question moves to how would a political ratings site help transform elections?
To answer this, we turn to Yelp as the perfect case study on how a political ratings site would affect politics. The similarities between politics and the restaurant industry that existed before Yelp are uncanny.
Prior to Yelp, there wasn’t really a good way to know if a restaurant was good other than through word-of-mouth. That is why big chains such as Applebee’s and Chili’s dominated the landscape.
Consumers had some indication of what to expect from these national brands from a menu and experience perspective, and for most potential diners it’s better to go with the devil you know when you’re hungry.
Politics, like the restaurant industry, is the perfect example where consumers must make decisions with little information to go on.
There are well-known big brands who dominate the headlines and the ad space and lesser-known challenger brands that more resemble the mom-and-pop restaurants that dot Anytown, USA.
Yelp provided those smaller, more bespoke restaurants with the opportunity to flourish based on the (generally) superior quality of their food, service, and overall experience.
Now consumers could take chances on eating at more and more of these local, challenger restaurants because they had comfort, thanks to ratings, that they would have a good experience.
The numbers bear out the impact of Yelp on the restaurant industry. Business Insider reported in June that chain restaurants are now in their 15th month of decline since the financial crises while the overall market has remained stagnant.
This means non-chain restaurants are performing better compared to their chain peers, and while it’s a stretch to say that Yelp directly impacted these numbers, it’s not wild to think that they must have played a large part.
It’s also not hard to believe that a dedicated political site with ratings for representatives in office could help transform politics by reducing the influence of parties and allowing for more independent thought.
The best part about a Yelp for politics is that ratings are generally unaffected by fluctuating news stories because they can be aggregated over time and appended to the politician’s brand.
This would help put the entirety of representatives’ term(s) in perspective and quell the destructive effect that the news cycle has on politics.
So, who knows? The next time you’re picking your next representatives at the polls, you may just pull out your phone, open a ratings app, and scroll through each name on the ballot to see their ratings before you pull the handle.
Then afterward you can open Yelp and find a good bar to head to and watch the results of the election.
Advocate is a startup founded by two seasoned digital and design professionals, Chris Bystrom and Jason Andrews. The company is based in New York, New York. You can visit their site here.