Why Incumbents Rarely Lose

Incumbents have a much easier time getting reelected than challangers have at even coming close to beating them and there are three reasons for this occurance.

By Hal Furman

Perhaps the most overused comment by the opponents of congressional term limits is, "We don’t need term limits, we already have them — they’re called elections." Almost inevitably whenever the term limits debate heats up one hears this tired line followed just as inevitably by the comment, "If people don’t like their congressional representative or senator, they can always vote them out." If only it were so.

One has to look back no farther than November to see the fallacy of this argument made so often by the career politicians and their professional protectors in the media and along K Street, Washington, D.C.’s Gucci Gulch. Before too much time elapses let’s look at the facts. The facts are that a congressional incumbent seeking reelection has about as much chance of losing as the Chicago Bulls do of losing a seven game series to UNLV. Theoretically it could happen, but it sure as heck ain’t likely.

Last November, 94 percent (357 out of 377) of congressional incumbents seeking reelection succeeded. Fully 98.8 percent of Democrat incumbents won while 91.5 percent of their Republican colleagues did so as well. In the U.S. Senate only one incumbent, South Dakota Republican Larry Pressler, lost a reelection bid. These statistics are remarkably consistent with those from the 1994 elections which resulted in the GOP takeover of both Houses for the first time in 42 years. What’s going on here? Do people really believe that members of Congress (whom Americans typically rate somewhere between lawyers and used car salesman in terms of popularity) are doing a great job? My guess is no. So why is it that the average incumbent has about as much chance of losing as he or she has of being hit by lightning on a summer day in Las Vegas? There are three primary reasons, I believe.

1. Congressional districts are created to protect incumbents. Nearly all congressional district, in the country have been gerrymandered so as to provide political safe havens for incumbents of both parties. Every decade the state legislatures fight and scrap over reapportionment maps and every decade the party in power succeeds in creating a larger number of "safe seats" for itself. That, however, doesn’t mean that the remaining districts are competitive. It simply means that the remaining districts are stacked toward the minority party rather than the majority. The portion of votes received by incumbents in contested House races between 1980 and 1996 has averaged 64 percent as a result of gerrymandered districts. Simply put, most of America’s congressional districts are not competitive.

2. Federal campaign finance laws are designed to protect incumbents. Not only is the playing field (the district maps) stacked in favor of incumbents but the whole scheme under which candidates raise and spend campaign money is also stacked. The federal contribution limits of

$1,000 per individual per election and $5,000 per political action committee make it all but impossible for anyone not independently wealthy to run for Congress, Federal Election Commission statistics show that less than eight percent of America’s registered voters contribute more than $100 in total to political candidates annually. So where do the millions of dollars spent every two years on

congressional campaigns come from? The money comes from those most interested in manipulating the political system — big business, big labor unions, and professional lobbyists. These groups and individuals give generously to those already in power because they already have a vote on matters of critical import to these special interests. Congressional challengers are by and large shut out by the groups that provide the vast bulk of campaign dollars.

Not only incumbents have a huge fund raising advantage to start with but contribution limits greatly aid incumbents. No one with a real job can afford to spend two years panhandling for campaign donations of under $1,000. Members of Congress who typically work three days a week, eight months a year (okay, I’m being generous) spend vast amounts of their time (actually our time) begging for contributions. Challengers, who more likely than not have to earn a living, don’t have this luxury. Incumbents always complain about the time they spend fund raising but nothing ever changes. I think we can guess why. It is not to the advantage of incumbents to change the existing system.

3. The average congressional office is a taxpayer funded reelection campaign office. Let’s not kid ourselves. If a congressional office is working well, everything it does is designed to reflect the representative or senator in the best possible light to his or her constituents. That’s not necessarily wrong; it’s just a fact. Free mail, town hall meetings and the like are important tools in communicating with constituents. They also greatly aid the reelection effort. Challengers have nothing similar to rely upon.

Today the average congress person spends more of his or her time at home in his or her district than in Washington doing the people’s business. In essence, what this means is that the taxpayers are paying incumbents to campaign. Nice work if you can get it. Perhaps in addition to limiting congressional terms, we should consider paying members only for the days that Congress is actually in session.

So, the next time you hear a term limits opponent proclaim his or her undying faith in the power of elections, ask them how many incumbents lost in 1996. The answer is not many.u

Hal Furman, a Las Vegas-based entrepreneur, is Chairman of Nevadans for Term Limits which promoted Question 17 on the November 1996 ballot and is an NPRI Director.

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