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Voters sent career politicians in Washington a powerful "change" message by reelecting almost all of them to office

Republican Kelly Ayotte, one of just two incumbent senators to lose their reelection bids.
Republican Kelly Ayotte, one of just two incumbent senators to lose their reelection bids.
Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images

If you looked only at the exit polls, you might conclude that 2016 was a "change election." After all, in exit polls, 39 percent of respondents said "Can bring needed change" was the quality that mattered most in deciding how they voted for president.

But look at the other four questions: "Has the right experience," "Has good judgment," and "Cares about people like me." If you're a Trump supporter, which one of these would you pick?

Considerable political science evidence shows that voters pick the candidates they like and then decide on the issues that are important to them based on what the candidate prioritizes. The survey might as well have substituted "Can bring needed change" with "Make America Great Again." It would tell us about as much about what voters actually wanted.

But there's an even larger problem with the "change election" narrative. It's that these same voters who allegedly wanted "change" overwhelmingly sent their career politicians a strong "change" message by reelecting them to Washington. That'll teach them!

Of 393 House incumbents who sought reelection, only five lost in the primaries, and only eight lost in the general election. For those of you keeping score at home, that's 97 percent of incumbents reelected. Only two incumbent senators, Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), lost. And Kirk, a Republican in a deep blue state, was always a long shot to win reelection.

Of 466 seats up in both the House and the Senate, 445 stayed in the same party. Again, for those of you keeping score at home, that's 96 percent of congressional seats staying in the same party.

And once all the votes are counted, Hillary Clinton will have won the national popular vote by only a little less than Barack Obama won it in 2012.

For a so-called "change" election, this is a whole lot of status quo.

There is, of course, a simple reason for this: There are almost no swing voters left. Almost all voters are now partisan voters. And since few congressional districts and a minority of states have meaningful two-party competition, straight party voting is just incumbent-reelection voting. To the extent that changes in partisan balance do happen, it's mostly because a slightly different electorate turns out. The simple story of 2016 is that turnout in core Democratic areas was slightly down, while turnout in core Republican areas was slightly up.

What this means is that the out-party is always the "change" party. Remember Obama's slogan in 2008? Change. Half of national voters are always going to want "change" because half of all national voters will always want the other party to be in charge. In 2020, Democrats will be the "change" party.

This is not to ignore the fact that voters may indeed be angry and frustrated with the status quo in Washington. But with a two-party system and vanishingly few competitive races, it's impossible to distinguish partisan voting from "change" voting. And until we give voters more options, voting for "change" will continue to look indistinguishable from voting for the status quo.