There are many factors that can determine the election of a congressional candidate. Some of these factors include short-term forces, long-term forces, and a quality challenger. Short-term forces are influential evaluations voters make concerning the candidates, party, and issues. They are short-term forces because they vary from election to election. These forces, according to The American Congress, “can shape the partisan and ideological balance in the House and Senate”, because they can influence the outcome in congressional races. Party identification and incumbent candidates are long-term forces that voters rely on in every election. These factors are low information voting cues, but hold significant weight in elections since most people default to these factors. A quality challenger is a candidate that by his or her attributes and qualifications, have an increased chance of success in elections. Among the factors that determine elections, the incumbency force has gained strong momentum in elections (pg. 67). The incumbency advantage includes the factors within Congress that contribute to the success of reelection. Although incumbency, through the many benefits does not always guarantee success, it provides many hurdles to challengers.
It is important to note that in elections there are “three types of congressional candidates: incumbents seeking reelection, challengers to incumbents, and candidates running in districts or states with an open seat” (pg. 67). Open seat candidates are running for election in a position where the incumbent did not seek reelection or was defeated in primary elections (pg. 67). In this circumstance, there is no incumbency advantage, since the incumbent is not a candidate for election. The influence of incumbency advantage varies from the House and the Senate. Challengers for Senate races are more successful than challengers for House races (pg. 68). Senate races are more competitive because candidates must appeal to large constituencies (pg. 69). Therefore, since House incumbents appeal to a smaller constituency base than Senate incumbents they are more successful. Senate challengers also include stronger quality candidates because they hold resources and name recognition that many incumbents possess (pg. 77). Name recognition and the ability to attain resources are advantages that incumbents acquire through their years in office. These factors are among other dynamics that help reelect incumbents.
Incumbent success in elections can be attributed to the advantage the incumbent’s party holds in their state or district (pg. 70). Generally, constituents vote according to their party identification. While this may seem expected, this is very significant in terms of redistricting. The Supreme Court ruling of Wesberry v. Sanders (1964) found that districts needed to reflect population in order to make congressional districts equal in population, when before such reapportionment was not obligatory (pg. 72). With redistricting being enforced, parties sought to retain their control and influence within districts. Since majority parties have control over drawing the district lines, they make them according to their best interests. In the 1960s, Democrats controlled redistricting and packed Republican voters into few areas in order to increase Democrat control of the state (pg. 73). This phenomenon helped guarantee Republican incumbents reelections since they were in safe districts (pg.73). Here the incumbency advantage was very strong for Republican incumbents, since they reflected the party identification of voters within their district. Redistricting can also prove difficult for incumbents. Members must represent constituents that they had not previously represented. This can be difficult for incumbents since they must expand their appeal to constituents, and weaken ties with their previous constituents in order to gain the favor of their new constituents. While incumbents have many resources available to make these adjustments, it could go against their goals as a member of Congress. “Many members feel a strong obligation to look out for the interests of their constituents even though it may have little effect on reelection prospects and there is little connection between their constituents’ and their own policy interests” (pg. 93). This strong obligation can explain why incumbents, especially those that have served as members of Congress over long periods of time, retire after redistricting. House member Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) upon his announcement of retirement from office referenced some of these reasons.
House member Barney Frank expresses that his close ties to the community would be at a disservice with the inclusion of more constituents. Though Frank is a long serving member of the House of Representatives that has the necessary resources for reelection, his strong obligation to his constituents out-weighted the propensity of members of Congress to seek reelection.
Although party identification is important in determining elections, The American Congress points to a phenomenon where a decline in party identification has helped reelect incumbents during the 1960s-1980s (pg. 70). This occurrence appears to be a double edge sword for incumbents. Although incumbents can count on some votes from constituents outside of their party, they also saw their constituency base weaken (pg. 70). During this time public’s perception of issues, candidates, and parties, as mentioned previously, may have altered the outcome of elections. These changes can make elections more competitive. Although incumbents were winning more votes, they were not winning at a higher rate (pg. 70).
An incumbent’s resources are significantly important in elections. These resources vary from the actual perquisites granted to members of Congress to some that are indirect benefits. There resources include, “a large personal staff in their Washington office and in their district offices, committee staffs, office and stationary budgets, use of frank, travel allowance, access to and influence over the White House and executive agencies, access to media, and expertise in congressional support agencies” (pg. 71). These benefits all help incumbents gain name recognition and credit claiming. Their appearances within the media and at home in public events help voters recall members of Congress. This is very important since voter information concerning candidates is low. These privileges also come with some restrictions. The franking privilege helps members “send mass mailings to their respective districts or states” (pg. 71). However, a “1973 law prohibits the use of frank for purposes unrelated to the official business, activities, and duties of members and for mail matter which specifically solicits political support…or vote or financial assistance for any candidate for any political office” (pg. 66). The law clearly restricts the incumbency advantage; however, incumbents maintain contact via mail with voters more than challengers to House and Senate seats (pg. 77). Their ability to maintain contact with voters helps members of Congress illustrate that they are part of the community. Here House member Joe Donnelly (D-Indiana) shows his roots to the community by honoring the lives of fallen war veterans and the long record of service of South Bend, Indiana Mayor Stephen J. Luecke.
The speech made in dedication to the fallen war veterans helps Rep. Joe Donnelly gain recognition with close relatives and friends of the mentioned soldiers, as well as among families with relatives abroad and friends of soldiers serving in the military. Constituents active in the military in Rep. Joe Donnelly’s district are more likely to view him positively for recognizing their duties.
Rep. Joe Donnelly’s tribute to South Bend, Indiana Mayor Stephen J. Luecke displays his knowledge of the community. During his speech, he mentioned how the community has benefited from long bike trails, growth and development, and the expansion of universities within the community. While Rep. Joe Donnelly is not claiming credit for these projects, he is appealing to constituents that have benefited from these projects by making light of them.
Credit claiming is a strong incumbency advantage that helps voters view incumbents favorably for their record of service. The official resources of Congress are vehicles that allow members of Congress to do work that directly serve their constituents. “Many of these services fall under the heading of “casework”—efforts to solve constituents’ and local governments’ problems with federal agencies” (pg. 71). The expansion of federal programs has made it difficult for constituents to work around the bureaucracy (pg.71). Casework allows members of Congress to provide nonpartisan services to constituents while claiming credit for the work they have done during elections (pg.71-72). These services and solutions provided to constituents make it difficult for challengers to refute. Incumbents through their constituency service develop quality candidacy. “Candidate quality is measured by candidate’s previous political experience” (pg. 75). This can prove hard for challengers who have not held a position in politics. Lack of quality challengers can therefore increase the chance of reelection for the incumbent.
Low candidacy quality among challengers can fortify the incumbency advantage since they are not able to attract the funds necessary to defeat an incumbent. Contributors to campaigns typically give money to candidates they feel are likely to be successful (pg. 76). It is important for parties to produce a quality candidate in order to attract money, since incumbents have better access to it. “By using their committee and subcommittee chairmanships, party posts, and other sources of influence” incumbents are able to attract money (pg. 73). PAC contributions and other contributions in general are a lot higher for incumbents, even though challengers have access to PAC money (pg. 73). Total contribution amounts have been used to “scare off potential challengers, especially if the incumbent is vulnerable (pg. 74). Parties will typically aid incumbents that are vulnerable in order to maintain majority or to ensure that more seats are not lost (pg.73). The ability of incumbents to attract more money than challengers deters challengers from running against them as well as giving them a head start for the next election (pg.74). According to The American Congress, the average winning House challenger in 2000 spent $750,000, however; by 2006 the number increased to $1,800,000 (pg. 74). Although it seems that incumbents are guaranteed reelection if they have enough money, short-term forces as well and quality candidates can weaken the incumbency advantage.
It is the view of some that incumbents “have created a system in which various benefits of office—including biased districting, free use of official resources, fundraising leverage, and cozy relations with lobbyists—give them an unfair advantage that can be overcome only through radical reform” (pg. 5). This view is negligent to the other factors that concern elections. While incumbents have great advantages in elections, elections are not guaranteed to the incumbent. Many advantages can actually work against incumbents such as increased criticism from the public, strong media light, and campaign finance regulations. Incumbents must still appeal to voters and provide a service to constituents if they seek reelection. Ultimately, voters have the power to influence elections and alter the makeup of Congress.
Morning Hour May 25, 2011. Perf. Rep. Joe Donnelly. C-SPAN. C-SPAN Video Archieve. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. <http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/MorningHour596>.
Morning Hour Oct. 26, 2011. Perf. Rep. Joe Donnelly. C-SPAN Video Archieve. C-SPAN. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. <http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/MorningHour637>.
Representative Barney Frank Retirement Announcement. Perf. Rep. Barney Frank. C-SPAN. C-SPAN Video Archieve. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. <http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/302896-1>.
Smith, Steven S., Jason M. Roberts, and Ryan J. Vander Wielen. The American Congress. 6th ed. New York: Cambridge UP, 2009. Print.