Jeffrey Bernstein, a political scientist at Eastern Michigan University, describes the central fact about congressional elections: incumbents are re-elected in overwhelming numbers. He also reviews how political scientists have explained this phenomenon and suggests ways for high school and college teachers to teach their students about incumbency. What follows is an excerpt from a simulation of congressional elections Bernstein created for CongressLink, a project conducted with a Robert H. Michel Civic Education Grant [discontinued grants program].
The first, and most central, fact we should know about congressional elections is the incumbency advantage (see the following section for useful tips on how to teach about incumbency). Simply put, what we mean by this is that incumbent members of Congress are at a great advantage when running for reelection; over time, incumbents are reelected close to 95% of the time. Some years, this figure climbs as high as 98%; in 1998, for example, 395 out of 403 incumbents who sought reelection were successful (seven lost in the general election and one lost his primary). Thus, I teach my classes that understanding congressional elections means first understanding the advantages of incumbency; the most important thing to know about any congressional contest is whether an incumbent is running or whether it is a race for an open seat.
The first generation of scholarship on congressional elections took two views of why incumbents possessed such an advantage. The first of these views focused on voter behavior. In this research, incumbents were said to win reelection so frequently because congressional voters were inordinately swayed by name recognition when casting their congressional votes. In a landmark article, John Ferejohn demonstrated that voters were likely to vote against the candidate from their party if the only name they recognized was that of the candidate for the other party. Thus, on average, a Democrat who recognizes only the name of the Republican on the ballot is more likely to vote Republican than Democrat. Since incumbents generally have higher name recognition than challengers, they become more likely to be reelected.
The second view for why incumbents are more likely to be reelected comes from incumbent behavior. This theory, most associated with work by David Mayhew and Morris Fiorina, argues that incumbents take advantage of the perquisites of office to enhance their electoral position over their challengers. Thus, the franking (free mailing) privilege incumbents get helps them maintain increased name recognition. Travel to the district helps incumbents as well. In addition, by performing casework for their constituents (such as by finding lost Social Security checks), incumbents can develop good will, which then translates into votes. Finally, incumbents can skillfully take positions that are in agreement with constituency opinion. They also advertise based on these positions and build a legislative record that the opinion leaders in the district can support. In short, incumbents are doing the things that help them get reelected.
Linked to incumbency (and closely following from it) is the strategic politicians theory most associated with the work of Gary Jacobson and Sam Kernell. Jacobson and Kernell argue that the reason incumbents win so often is because they so often face weak challengers. Because incumbents can do things like advertising, casework and skillful position-taking, and because voters tend to vote based on name recognition, where incumbents dominate, strong challengers tend to avoid running. Why should a state legislator risk her seat to run a likely losing battle against an incumbent member of Congress? Thus, the field is left to the weak challengers, who are usually no match for incumbents. Congressional elections become self-fulfilling prophecies. Good challengers stay away because it seems incumbents will win; when they do, incumbents win.
The strategic politicians theory incorporates money as well. If there is one thing we know about money in congressional elections, it is that money matters most to the challengers. Incumbents already have gotten their name before the voters; things like casework and franking allow them to do so while in office. But challengers tend to be less known. Successful challengers must spend money. But strategic donors avoid giving money to those they perceive as weak; why donate money to a candidate who is likely to lose? Money accounts for even more of the incumbency advantage; most congressional challengers are perceived as so weak that they can't even get their hands on enough cash to run a campaign. Strategic donors also help make congressional elections self-fulfilling prophecies.
Finally, the strategic politicians theory accounts for national results in addition to local ones. We have already seen how the quality of a challenger influences individual elections. But on the national scale, challenger quality is how national factors get linked to individual districts. For example, in 1994, Republicans looked primed to gain House seats. President Clinton was unpopular and the economy was not doing superbly. Thus, throughout the country, strong Republicans lined up to run against Democratic incumbents; while most of these incumbents were reelected, a significant number lost. Few strong Democrats challenged Republicans; that year, no Republican incumbents lost. Thus, although most congressional voters do not directly use national criteria in casting their votes, the strategic politician idea is how these factors get reflected in elections.
Before closing out this discussion on incumbency and congressional elections, I must remind the readers that despite all I have thus far said, members of Congress continue to "run scared." (The phrase is Gary Jacobson's.) Years ago, Richard Fenno argued that even though objective indicators may point to the fact that a member of Congress has little to fear in a reelection bid, all of them act as if they do. Members are always a little paranoid, as losing an election is the worst possible thing that could happen in their careers. Thus, even seemingly safe members are hyper-cautious about the next election. They visit the district all the time, closely monitor prevailing opinion back home, act carefully in their position-taking, and devote their attention to scaring off strong challengers for next time. It is true that in any year's election, very few incumbents lose. But, the fear that defeat may hit them leaves members constantly vigilant about the next election.
1. Incumbents win an overwhelming proportion of the time because they have significant advantages. These advantages include the ability to send free mail to their constituents and the ability to perform little favors for their constituents.
a. For instance, take the franking privilege (their ability to send free mail to constituents as long as the mail is not campaign-related). Get a copy of a recent newsletter sent by the local member of Congress. Share it with your students. Inform them that most incumbents send something like this to all addresses in their district 2-4 times a year. Is this a powerful advantage they have over their challengers?
b. Or, consider the ability to do casework for their constituents. Make a constituent request of your local member of Congress and save the letter they send you and the envelope. Share these materials with students. Point out that incumbents are provided the staff resources to provide these services to constituents, and are able to use the postal service for nothing in order to do this. This is another significant advantage for incumbents.
2. Incumbents win reelection so often because congressional elections are usually poorly followed by media and by the voters. Voters in congressional elections often vote by simple cues such as party and/or name recognition (incumbents have the advantage because their names are more likely to be known). Issue positions or policy behavior while in office affect few people's votes.
a. See how many students can name their local House incumbent. Then, see how many can name either the current challenger (if it's an election year) or the previous challenger (if it's not an election year). Compare this with how many can name the president, governor, senators, and their current or most recent opponents. There will be a difference.
b. Offer extra credit to any student who can tell you any policy stands taken by their local incumbent. The great majority of congressional election voters cannot do this. Just for the heck of it, ask if any of them can tell you any bills sponsored by the local representative. Trust me, they can't.
3. Congress as a whole is unpopular, but incumbents can nicely weather the storm. An unpopular institution does not affect the reelection ambitions of its members.
a. Ask your students to rate Congress on a scale of 1-10. Most will cluster around 5-7, although your class will have answers that vary. You are very unlikely to have students cluster in the 8-10 range. Then, ask them to predict the percentage of incumbents seeking reelection who get reelected in a given year. Tell them on average this number is 93, although in some years (like 2000) it flirts with 98. How can this unpopular an institution see so many of its members returned? See point #1 - incumbents have many resources at their disposal. And see point #2 - most voters use relatively simple cues in voting.
b. If you can, ask your students to read George Crile's article, "The Best Congressman" from Harper's Magazine, January 1975. This article nicely tells the story of Congressman Dan Flood from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. I won't give away too much J except to say that Flood did everything right for the citizens of Wilkes-Barre even if it meant acting in a way that was contrary to the national interest. I always tell my students that Dan Flood is the kind of person you'd love to have represent you but is also the kind of person you'd hate to see in Congress representing someone else. He explains how Congress can be unpopular but have its members consistently returned to office. (I know there may be difficulty in assigning extra reading like this, but this is a short article, it's fun, and the lesson it packs is well worth it!)
4. Members of Congress "run scared." Even in the absence of any reason to fear for their electoral lives, the worry incessantly about losing the next election. This keeps them risk averse and keeps their behavior in line with what they perceive their constituents want.
a. I always take my 100 person lecture class and have them all pretend they are members of Congress. Ninety-five percent of them will be reelected, so they all have little reason to fear. Then, I randomly call out names of five who lost. I encourage all of them to look around the room at those who lost. People who lose are not just statistics - they may include the person I eat lunch with, the woman with an office down the hall from mine, the man who serves on my committee with me. When people see how defeat can touch those close to them, they get a little more paranoid about losing.
b. I remind students also that while defeat in any given year is rare, more members leave office due to electoral defeat than any other reason (such as retirement). It is true that most members are likely to win any given election, a long congressional career requires stringing along a large number of wins. This is not always easy.