Livin' it up, American style

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Congressional incumbency advantage was not so much of an advantage these past midterms.

In this past midterm election, 6 US Senators were not reelected to their seats, losing to strong challengers. It is unusual to see this many incumbents not get reelected, usually incumbents have a 97% chance of getting reelected, and only 1 or 2 senators lose a reelection race every senate election year. Sitting senators and house representative enjoy something political scientists call congressional incumbency advantage.

One of the main advantages of being an incumbent is that the perks that come with being a US Congressman can be used to run a reelection campaign. Congressmen get a budget that allows them to set up large offices with staffers in both DC and their home district. They get travel allowances for trips between DC and their home state. They also get to send letters to their constituencies without having to pay for postage. Having a free staff, free travel home, and free postage gives incumbent Congressmen some helpful advantages in running a reelection campaign.

While a large part of a sitting Congressmen's job is to schmooze with his constituency, his challenger may be holding another job and can't campaign full time and still pay their bills. A challenger also has to work harder to gain the name recognition that a sitting Congressman enjoys. Congressmen often appear on TV and in the media, so their public will know more about them than any challenger. Incumbents have already won one campaign, so they have valuable experience campaigning, and have a base of core supporters already. A challenger has to win over all of their supporters. And then there is the biggest difference- Money. Incumbents raise 2-3 times more money than a challenger.

There are ways to overcome the incumbent advantages. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) was a sitting US House Representative, and therefore had free travel and postage, plus a base of loyal supporters from his past election campaigns. Bob Casey (D-PA) had the advantage of built in name recognition across the state, as his father Robert Casey had been a governor in Pennsylvania. Many people who try to run for office have a lot of money already, so they don't have to worry about working another job at the same time. They can also put their own money into the race, and buy a few more dirty ads than their opponent who may be relying more on money from donations and the state and national party. A challenger can also make gains if the person they are running against is involved in some sort of well- publicized scandal, which definitely helped John Tester (D-MT) beat Jack Abramoff's buddy Conrad Burns (R-MT).
The general atmosphere of annoyance with Bush also helped mightily in the election of 6 new Democrats. Sometimes the time is just ripe for change, and not even once popular incumbents can survive, despite all their reelection advantages.


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