The Power of Congressional Incumbency: How Unfair Electoral Advantage Damages American Democracy

Congress, Policy, Parties, & Institutions

The Power of Congressional Incumbency: How Unfair Electoral Advantage Damages American Democracy

Congress, Policy, Parties, & Institutions -

The Power of Congressional Incumbency: How Unfair Electoral Advantage Damages American Democracy © Abstract

The United States Congress - particularly the House of Representatives and its members appointed in proportion to state population - was designed as the branch of government that answered directly to the people. The federal judiciary, appointed for life to positions of great power, are largely beyond reach of the electorate, barring misconduct or malfeasance; similarly, the executive branch - the President - was created to wield executive authority, to be a leader and a figurehead, less influenced by changes in popular opinion. But the Congress was supposed to be different: the House of Representatives - and eventually the Senate, after 1913 ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution - is elected directly by the popular vote of the people, and was designed as a check on both judicial and executive power (Mayhew, 1974). Unfortunately, one simple electoral reality has significantly limited the U.S. Congress as a true "voice of the people": specifically, the fact that incumbents are almost universally re-elected. The factual truth is that once an individual is elected to Congress - especially to the U.S. Senate - he or she will generally retain that seat as long as they wish to continue occupying the office (Fiorina, 1997). Going back at least a century, the single greatest advantage in any Congressional election was being an incumbent; that is, having already been elected once previously. In the 2004 election cycle, for example, the re-election rate for sitting members of Congress was a stunning 98.8%; as one writer noted, such an undemocratic, iron-fisted hold on the power of the status quo might have "made even Soviet politicians blush" (Radmacher, 2006). In fact, ironically enough even though the British House of Lords - one of the Houses of Parliament - consists entirely of members appointed for life, it nevertheless "has more turnover than the U.S. Congress" (Gear, 2000). In short, the power of Congressional incumbency functions to undermine the American system of democracy; it is simple common sense to point out that, if the sitting legislator is almost guaranteed to be re-elected, the election is de facto invalid. True democracy, in both the theoretical and practical sense, would require that, to at least some degree, all candidates compete on an equal playing field, with their election depending on how the electorate responds to their views, positions, and personal attributes; the inherent advantage of incumbency in Congressional elections is thus antithetical to the democratic ideal because it negates any true choice for the voters. (Merriner & Senter, 1999). The political and sociological consequences are clear - and so are the root causes: they include campaign financing, partisan electoral redistricting, media visibility granted to incumbents, and disparity in available funding; all of these must be addressed if Congressional elections are to be returned to their populist origins. Uncontested and Uncompetitive Elections

As with all exercises in problem-solving, the first step in identifying workable solutions is defining the size and scope of the problem; and by any definition, the inherent and inherently anti-democratic advantages of Congressional incumbency are enormous. In fact, party leaders on both sides of the American political continuum are so well aware of the reality of the power of incumbency that firmly held Congressional seats are rarely even legitimately contested. For example, during the 2000 election cycle, political scientists noted that "out of 435 House seats, 64 members this year have no major-party opponent, according to the Center for Voting and Democracy. About 300 or so face only token opposition, according to experts and House members" (Weiser, 2000). The truth is that, on a state-by-state and district-by-district basis, for reasons that are both historical and political, the vast majority of Congressional seats are firmly held by one party - or by one person. In this states, or in those districts, it simply makes no sense for the minority party or non-incumbent candidate to make more than a token effort; after all, they are almost certain to fail. The data is clear: "Fewer than one in ten congressional seats were won by less than 10% in 1998, and more than 80 percent of districts could be certified as "safe" for one party a year ago. Voters in those districts will have no role in shaping the next Congress" (Mortimer, 2000). During the 2000 elections, "Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the national Republican Congressional Committee ... boasted to reporters about GOP incumbents: ‘185 guys are back without worrying about it.' Democrats put their number of untouchable incumbents at 190, said John Del Cecato, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. That adds up to more than 85 percent of House members who are considered shoo-ins" (Weiser, 2000). The effect of this entrenched incumbency not only de-legitimizes the federal legislature, it also spills over into the Presidential election, and serves to effectively negate the votes of citizens in all but a handful of states that are actually contested:

The presidential election, of course, is actually 50 separate winner-take-all state elections. The candidate with the most votes in each state wins all of that state's electoral votes. (Nebraska and Maine allocate some of their electoral votes by congressional district.) Most states are reliably won by one major party. That means that the only real way people in those states can help their candidate (aside from sending money) is to move to one of eight or 10 "battleground states," like Michigan or Ohio, whose electoral votes will decide the election. (Mortimer, 2000).

The situation in the House of Representatives is similar; with the vast majority of races either non-competitive or barely competitive - with so many races barely even being contested by the opposition party - a significant number of the House elections simply don't matter in terms of which side controls the legislature. "The struggle for control of the House centers on 20 to 30 competitive districts such as Lansing, Mich.; Montgomery County, Pa.; suburban Chicago; and a district around Muskogee, Oklahoma. The 200 million Americans who live outside the battleground districts are just spectators" (Weiser, 2000).

Statistical Evidence

The attitude of both major parties - the willingness to abandon most districts and states as non-competitive - raises an immediate question: is their basic premise supported by factual data? The unfortunate answer is clearly yes. Since at least the 1970s, re-election rates for members of the House of Representatives has never fallen below 90%; the figure has been the same for the Senate since the early 1980s (Merriner & Senter, 1999, p. xxi). The more recent statistics can only be described as stunning: in the 2004 elections, 401 incumbent members of the House of Representatives ran for re-election; of those 401 that sought to return to office for another term, 396 were successful. A mere five failed to win re-election. The picture is even bleaker in the Senate: in 2004, of 26 Senators up for re-election, 25 were successful. Just a single lone incumbent managed to lose a Senate race ("Why?). Obviously the attitude of party leaders that only a very few districts and states actually matter is well-founded; the question to be answers is what are the origins for this phenomenon.

Financial Issues/Campaign Finance Reform

Money is perhaps the single biggest reason that incumbents are returned to office so often, and their incumbency is actually the primary factor in their ability to raise funds; this sort of cyclical effect is the most powerful engine driving the re-election of incumbents in Congress. "It's rare for an incumbent to face a challenger with a campaign war chest even half the size... Whoever raises the most money almost always wins. And incumbents almost always raise the most money" (Radmacher, 2006). This creates a self-perpetuating cycle: since the candidate with the most money usually wins, and incumbents almost always have more funds available - the incumbent has a distinct advantage. In 2004, for example, incumbents in the House of Representatives outspent their opponents by an average of $700,000; in the Senate, incumbents outspent challengers by an average of more than $4 million (‘Why?"). With those figures in mind, the fact that 95%-99% of incumbents are re-elected in any given election cycle is unsurprising. But the question then becomes: how do incumbents so reliably raise so much more campaign money - and the answer is invariably that they do so by exploiting the media advantages afforded to incumbents.

The Media Advantage

Another key advantage of incumbency is media exposure. First and foremost, easy access to mass media makes raising funds for election campaigns much more efficient - and the newspapers and magazines are eager to help incumbents get all the exposure they need:

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. ("Why?")

The result of this automatic media exposure once again creates a sort of cyclic pattern that almost ensures re-election. Incumbency leads to exposure from a variety of sources, particularly in more recent decades, thanks to the Internet and cable television. "Both House and Senate members lay claim to automatic media attention, increasing their exposure to their constituents. Given that most electoral politics is now played through the media this factor is of immense importance. In order to hold a modern campaign, most campaign spending is directed at media outlets. House members have the ability to appear, virtually at will, on the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-SPAN), which televises House sessions each day to viewers in some 17 million homes" (Walsh, 1984, p. 31). As a result of this exposure, the incumbent gains unbeatable name recognition in his district or state - that makes fund-raising almost automatic. The constituents already know the incumbent, whereas the challenger must first create that recognition before any voters will contribute to a campaign.

Perhaps even more important than the fund-raising benefit of the media exposure given to incumbents is the value of the exposure itself. Even if appearances on cable talk shows and C-Span and local media doesn't raise money, it creates a level of awareness in the constituency that no challenger could possibly meet - even with unlimited funds. Perhaps the clearest recent example of this principle could be seen in the case of South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond. Although he was approaching 100 years old and clearly not able to perform his Senatorial duties, the "adoration" of local and state media made it virtually impossible for any challenger to unseat the long-time Senator. In fact, he was so heavily supported in the media that he hadn't been required to actually debate an opposing candidate in more than 50 years! (Merriner & Senter, 1999, p. 63). These triple advantages of mass exposure, efficient fund-raising, and media support can essentially end any opposition to an entrenched incumbent, which is precisely why dozens of races go entirely uncontested by the other major party.


A final advantage of incumbents lies in the power of Congress to re-draw the lines if their own districts, commonly referred to as "re-districting." This power might seem minor at first glance, but in reality it can instantly ensure major party control of a district for decades. The reason is that lines can be drawn to include specific social or ethnic demographics that will almost certainly vote largely as single blocks; for example, a Democrat might seek to gerrymander a district to include more urban and minority areas, while a Republican might seek to include more rural or middle-class areas. Thus, there is once again a cycle in place that serves to strengthen rather than weaken incumbency: once elected to office, a Congressman can gerrymander his district to make it even more likely that he'll win the election in the next cycle. In other words, "the parties get to draw the districts, which lets them choose precisely which voters will be allowed to choose candidates in November" (Gear, 2000). This "nearly universal gerrymandering of congressional districts to provide safe seats for members of both parties" is a particularly pernicious practice, because once the district is gerrymandered, it becomes politically meaningless; unless there are major shifts in demographics, the electoral outcome is virtually certain for that district (Radmacher, 2006).


These are the realities of the current electoral situation in American Congressional elections: because of financial issues, media saturation, and rampant gerrymandering of districts, incumbents almost always win re-election, with the elections themselves thus rendered almost meaningless. Solving the problem will not be easy, since any attempt at reform can potentially run into Constitutional protections of free speech. It is, for example, impossible to bar local media from extensively covering local politicians; for that reason, eliminating the incumbency advantage will never occur. However, reforms could be instituted, particularly in terms of campaign financing laws and fairness in media coverage, that could make some headway into returning Congressional elections to what they were designed to be - the voice of the people as they chose their representative leaders.

References Cited

Fiorina, Morris P. (1977) Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment, New

Haven: Yale University Press

Gear, John. (2000, Oct. 17). "Cash Won't Turn Race for Congress; Want to Know

Who Will Win? Check Districts Partisan Affiliations." Lansing State Journal.

Mayhew, David. (1974) Congress: The Electoral Connection. New Haven: Yale U


Merriner, James L. and Senter, Thomas P. (1999) Against Long Odds, Westport: Praeger

Mortimer, Lee. (2000, Nov. 15). "Elections Give Voters Too Little Say." The

Progressive Populist, Vol. 6, No. 20.

Radmacher, Dan. (2006, Oct. 26). "The Advantages of Incumbency Stack the

Deck." The Roanoke Times.

Walsh, Kenneth T. (1984, Oct. 29). "Why "In's" in Congress are So Hard to Beat."

U.S. News & World Report, v97, p. 31(1)

Weiser, Carl. (2000, Oct. 20). "For Most Incumbents in Congress, Re-Election is a

Sure Bet." The Ithaca Journal.

"Why Are Sitting Members of Congress Almost Always Re-elected?" This Nation.

Available online at: (7 Nov. 2006).

More by this Author


No comments yet.

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.

    Click to Rate This Article