Incumbency advantage (politics)

Incumbency advantage (politics)

Incumbency advantage is a term used in political science to describe the advantages incumbents have over their challengers in seeking reelection. This has been particularly linked to the United States House of Representatives since 1964 by the likes of Gary Cox and Jonathan Katz.

The incumbency advantage

Candidate-centered voting is a major advantage to incumbent members of the United States Congress. Incumbents, in general, receive far more exposure on television and in newspapers than those challenging them. With greater media exposure and substantial influence over public policy, incumbents are also able to raise far greater sums of money with which to campaign. In 2002, 398 House members ran for reelection, and only 16 were defeated, while a mere three out of 26 senators running for reelection lost. The reelection rate is 88 percent for the Senate and 96 percent for the House.

Incumbency advantages involve the ability of congressmen to make themselves popular with the voters in their district. Thus they can insulate themselves from regular party voting. Regular party voting is voting your partisan identification. A congressman that makes himself personally popular does not have to worry about the ebb and flow of popularity for Democrats or Republicans as a whole. Thus they can insulate themselves from challengers.

Assessing the incumbency advantage

Most incumbents who run for re-election get reelected. Since World War II, 92% of incumbents who ran for reelection were successful. The incumbency advantage can be a bit overstated, though.
*Not much competition. – Quality challengers (not some fresh face out of law school) do not typically choose to run when there is little chance. (Example: Claire McCaskill vs Jim Talent.)
*Incumbents who are vulnerable do not have to run for reelection. Vulnerable incumbents can (and often do) retire. Thus they self-select out of reelection.

Causes of incumbency advantage

*Experience – an incumbent by definition is experienced. He or she has already won at least one election. They have an inkling on what to do to get elected.
*Franking – congressional privilege that allows congresspersons to send out mail to their constituents for free. It’s in the Constitution. Challengers don’t get to send out free mail to the district or state.
*Free Media – local media like covering congressman. Furthermore, they can go on national TV shows, they have an office in Washington that can create media releases.
*Money – congressmen bring federal spending into their local areas to benefit the district (which thus increases goodwill in the district for them). Naturally challengers can’t do this.
*Casework – when individual constituents have a problem and call their congressman. It’s an easy, non-controversial way of making voters happy. People helped (no matter what party) will be more likely to vote for him and they will tell their friends. A large proportion of their staff is dedicated to doing casework.
*Campaign finance – the ability to raise money. They have a big advantage over challengers because they are already in congress with a vote over legislation and thus interest groups will attempt to influence them (whatever their party).

ee also

*Status quo bias

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