House & Senate Races: Incumbents, Challengers,
In November of 1998, 401 of the 435 sitting
members of the U.S. House of Representatives sought reelection. Of those 401,
all but six were reelected. In other words, incumbents seeking reelection to the
House had a better than 98% success rate. U.S. Senators seeking reelection were
only slightly less fortunate--slightly less than 90% of the Senate incumbents
who sought reelection in 1996 held on to their seats.
What is it about sitting
members of Congress that makes them so hard to beat? Are incumbents just better
candidates (on average) or is the deck somehow stacked against challengers?
For years, political
scientists have researched and written about the "incumbent advantage" in
congressional elections. In an attempt to explain the overwhelming success of
members of Congress seeking reelection, researchers have identified several
factors which make sitting members of Congress hard to beat. These factors
The "Perks" of Office
Each member of Congress
has a office budget allotment which provides enough money to hire a sizable
staff both in Washington, D.C. and back home in their states or districts. These
staffers assist members in their efforts to be effective, well-liked
representatives. In addition to money for staff, members of Congress also have
travel allowances for trips between Washington and their constituencies as well
as for trips inside their states or districts. One of the most widely recognized
"perks" of House members and Senators is the ability to send postage-free
informational letters or announcements to their constituents on a regular basis.
Sitting members of
Congress are on the job full-time—that is what they are paid to do. In fact,
many of the things a candidate would do to win an election, such as meeting and
talking with voters, attending special events, appearing on television or radio
talk shows, etc., are part of the job description of a member of Congress. In
contrast, a candidate challenging an incumbent must generally figure out how to
pay his or her bills while running for office. Many candidates are forced to go
into debt, especially in the early stages of a campaign before he or she has
raised much money.
Sitting members of
Congress are almost universally recognized in their districts. Having waged at
least one previous campaign, and a successful one at that, and then serving in
Congress for two years (House members) or six years (Senators) makes a sitting
member of Congress something of a household name among his or her constituents.
Moreover, members of the U.S. House and Senate have easy and ready access to the
news media and make regular appearances on television and radio programs and are
frequently mentioned in newspaper articles and editorials.
As noted, every sitting
member of Congress has run at least one successful election campaign for the
seat he or she holds. This means, among other things, that a sitting House
member or Senator has invaluable experience with creating and managing a
campaign organization. It also means that incumbents generally have an effective
volunteer organization in place and ready go when it is time to campaign.
By far the most widely
recognized and probably the most significant advantage enjoyed by sitting
members of Congress is the large amounts of campaign contributions they are able
to raise, especially in comparison to those who run against them. The table
below summarizes the average campaign resources available to various groups of
candidates in House and Senate races in 1998:
SOURCE: Common Cause. "House & Senate Races: Incumbents,
Challengers, Open Seats."
On average, a candidate
challenging an incumbent House member was outspent by nearly $565,000 and Senate
challengers were outspent by an average of $3.13 million. While, open-seat
candidates (those competing for a seat vacated by a sitting member's retirement
or death) did not raise as much as incumbents, the disparity between candidates
in particular open-seat races tends to be much less pronounced than it is in
In sum, incumbents tend to
win because they enjoy significant advantages over their challengers. The
widely-accepted conventional wisdom about these advantages is that they make
congressional elections unfair. It is true that it is difficult to beat an
incumbent, but that is generally the case not simply because the incumbent
enjoys the perks of office and has a large campaign bank account. Members of
Congress are reelected because their constituents have not been provided with a
compelling reason to vote for someone else. True, an under-funded candidate is
limited in his or her ability to provide voters with such a reason, but when a
member of Congress strays too far from the opinions and values of his or her
constituents or becomes embroiled in controversy, challengers will find that
they are able to raise more than enough money to make sure the voters know about
In reality, incumbents
leave office with fair amount of regularity. Each election year, a handful of
House members and Senators retire for a variety of reasons--sometimes because
they are not confident they could keep their seat if they ran again. And there
are a handful of members that are defeated by challengers each campaign cycle.
In any given election the number may seem small, but some elections produce
relatively large numbers of new members. Over the course of three or four
elections a large portion of the Congress may turn-over in spite of high
incumbent success rates in particular election years. Ultimately, the degree to
which the people are effectively represented by their members of Congress must
be determined at the individual-level.
Note: The content of this web page is republished on the Internet by kind
Common Cause, March 2005, and is not
a copyright of Citizens for United States Direct Initiatives.