Election Day 2004 showed the power of incumbency in American politics. For the fourth time in row, incumbents in the House of Representatives won over 98 percent of their races. And not only are they winning consistently, but they’re doing so by increasingly wider margins; incumbency now adds about 11 percent to the vote share of the average officeholder. The past three elections constituted the least competitive elections (with one exception) since 1946.
Some observers might argue that the overwhelming success of incumbents should not worry Americans. Voters, they say, are satisfied with their representatives. Perhaps that’s true, but we suspect something else is at work: Incumbents have given themselves too many advantages in the electoral game.
The congressional franking privilege allows incumbents to flood their districts with mail that often is little more than taxpayer-funded campaign literature. Large administrative and political staffs on Capitol Hill and in district offices attend to the needs of voters, all the while stressing the qualities of their bosses. Incumbents also receive taxpayer-subsidized travel, easy access to the media and, most recently, Web sites to communicate with the electorate. And they have the power to deliver pork barrel spending to their districts. The limits on all of those advantages are set by their beneficiaries — the Congress members themselves.
Against those advantages, it is difficult for a challenger to oust an incumbent without spending at least as much as, and probably more than, the incumbent. Only by spending large sums on television advertising, direct mail solicitations and grassroots organization can a challenger develop the levels of name recognition, issue identification and voter mobilization to catch up with the years (and frequently decades) of subsidized campaigning and pork barrel spending that so characterize an incumbent’s term in office.
And the incumbents’ advantages are growing. Thirty years ago, in the wake of Watergate, Congress imposed restrictions on campaign contributions. The more recent McCain-Feingold legislation has set that limit at $2,000 for a congressional candidate. Under the rhetorical guise of warding off unspecified corruption, an incumbent is happy to cap contributions at $2,000 per contributor if his challenger must operate under the same limit. Certainly, an incumbent may detest the phone calls he has to make to potential donors and the fundraising breakfasts, lunches and dinners he has to attend. But at night he sleeps well in the knowledge that his challenger back home must do the same (more, if the challenger is serious about winning) without, in most cases, a comparable network of contacts, donors and lobbyists whose longstanding collective investment in the incumbent’s career ensures continuing financial commitment.
The difficulties of raising money have made it harder for challengers to beat incumbents. They have also discouraged qualified, successful people from putting themselves forward as candidates in the first place, thereby reducing the quality of the pool of potential challengers. So it should not surprise us that in this era of increased restrictions on campaign finance, there is also increasing electoral success for incumbents.
Political gerrymandering has also helped incumbents. More and more House districts have become safe for Democrats or Republicans thanks to redistricting by state legislatures. In nearly a third of this year’s House races, the winning candidate (i.e., the incumbent) was either unopposed or faced an opponent without campaign funds.
The public understands the electoral game is fixed. A Rasmussen poll found 72 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that, “In American elections,members of Congress have unfair advantages over people who want to run against them.”
American elections do have competition between the political parties. After all, the Democrats could win back the House and Senate in 2006. What we lack is competition between insiders and outsiders. No one can seriously believe even 10 percent of incumbents will lose in 2006. This lack of competitive congressional elections is a direct consequence of public subsidy.
In the Federalist Papers, James Madison wrote that the House of Representatives was a “numerous and changeable body” that would most directly reflect the shifting popular will. These days, changes in the House are the rare exception rather than the democratic rule. Representative democracy works best when voters have choices and competition for office. Americans have too little of both now.