Why are sitting members of Congress almost always reelected?

In November of 2004, 401 of the 435 sitting members of the U.S. House of Representatives sought reelection. Of those 401, all but five were reelected. In other words, incumbents seeking reelection to the House had a better than 99% success rate. In the U.S. Senate, only one incumbent seeking reelection was defeated. Twenty-five of twenty-six (96%) were reelected.

What is it about sitting members of Congress that makes them so hard to beat? Are incumbents just better candidates (on average) or is the deck somehow stacked against challengers?

For years, political scientists have researched and written about the "incumbent advantage" in congressional elections. In an attempt to explain the overwhelming success of members of Congress seeking reelection, researchers have identified several factors which make sitting members of Congress hard to beat. These factors include:

The "Perks" of Office

Each member of Congress has a office budget allotment which provides enough money to hire a sizable staff both in Washington, D.C. and back home in their states or districts. These staffers assist members in their efforts to be effective, well-liked representatives. In addition to money for staff, members of Congress also have travel allowances for trips between Washington and their constituencies as well as for trips inside their states or districts. One of the most widely recognized "perks" of House members and Senators is the ability to send postage-free informational letters or announcements to their constituents on a regular basis.

Time

Sitting members of Congress are on the job full-time--that is what they are paid to do. In fact, many of the things a candidate would do to win an election, such as meeting and talking with voters, attending special events, appearing on television or radio talk shows, etc., are part of the job description of a member of Congress. In contrast, a candidate challenging an incumbent must generally figure out how to pay his or her bills while running for office. Many candidates are forced to go into debt, especially in the early stages of a campaign before he or she has raised much money.

Visibility

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.

Campaign Organization

As noted, every sitting member of Congress has run at least one successful election campaign for the seat he or she holds. This means, among other things, that a sitting House member or Senator has invaluable experience with creating and managing a campaign organization. It also means that incumbents generally have an effective volunteer organization in place and ready go when it is time to campaign.

Money

By far the most widely recognized and probably the most significant advantage enjoyed by sitting members of Congress is the large amounts of campaign contributions they are able to raise, especially in comparison to those who run against them. The table below summarizes the average campaign resources available to various groups of candidates in House and Senate races in 2004:

Candidate Status

U.S. House

U.S. Senate

Incumbents

$456,859,509

$223,964,295

Challengers

$112,498,172

$79,852,117

Open-Seat Candidates
$127,051,491
$238,890,389

TOTAL

$696,409,172

$542,706,801

SOURCE: Federal Election Commission

On average, a candidate challenging an incumbent House member in 2004 was outspent by $700,000. The average Senate challenger was outspent by about $4 million. While, open-seat candidates (those competing for a seat vacated by a sitting member's retirement or death) did not raise as much as incumbents, the disparity between candidates in particular open-seat races tends to be much less pronounced than it is in incumbent-challenger contests.

In sum, incumbents tend to win because they enjoy significant advantages over their challengers. The widely-accepted conventional wisdom about these advantages is that they make congressional elections unfair. It is true that it is difficult to beat an incumbent, but that is generally the case not simply because the incumbent enjoys the perks of office and has a large campaign bank account. Members of Congress are reelected because their constituents have not been provided with a compelling reason to vote for someone else. True, an under-funded candidate is limited in his or her ability to provide voters with such a reason, but when a member of Congress strays too far from the opinions and values of his or her constituents or becomes embroiled in controversy, challengers will find that they are able to raise more than enough money to make sure the voters know about such things.

In reality, incumbents leave office with fair amount of regularity. Each election year, a handful of House members and Senators retire for a variety of reasons--sometimes because they are not confident they could keep their seat if they ran again. And there are a handful of members that are defeated by challengers each campaign cycle. In any given election the number may seem small, but some elections produce relatively large numbers of new members. Over the course of three or four elections a large portion of the Congress may turn-over in spite of high incumbent success rates in particular election years. Ultimately, the degree to which the people are effectively represented by their members of Congress must be determined at the individual-level.