It's Still Easy for Incumbents to Keep Their Seats, but It Sure Costs a Lot More

Niraj Chokshi

Over the past 40 years, it hasn't gotten any easier—or harder—to win reelection as a House incumbent. It's just gotten way more expensive.

It's no secret that there's a serious incumbent advantage in the House. (And the Senate, too, but that data are less telling because the chamber has fewer elections and fewer incumbents.) The success rate for House incumbents running for reelection has dipped below 90 percent in only nine of the 34 elections since 1946, according to data compiled by National Journal's own Norm Ornstein and posted by the Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute. The reelection success rate has fallen below 80 percent only once. If you're an incumbent looking to keep your job, you are almost guaranteed to win.

And that hasn't changed much, either. The share of incumbents seeking and winning reelection has hovered around the low 90s for the past four decades. In fact, the trendline, in black below, shows that the odds of an incumbent winning reelection have fallen just slightly by 0.7 percentage points, from 93.7 percent in 1974 to 93 percent in 2012.

View photos

But that doesn't mean that running for reelection is a cakewalk: The amount of money raised by successful incumbents and successful challengers has multiplied over the past four decades. In 1974, the average successful incumbent spent roughly $500,000, by today's standards, according to a Campaign Finance Institute analysis of Federal Election Committee data. Today, the average incumbent spends seven times that amount—roughly $3.5 million.

"It's become very expensive," says Michael Malbin, cofounder and the executive director of CFI and a political-science professor at the University at Albany. "The candidates cannot rely on their constituent communications to carry the load for them anymore."

View photos

Part of the reason for the greater expense, Malbin says, is that incumbents can't coast on their name recognition (or the lack thereof for their upstart opponents). National issues and party loyalty have increasingly factored into local races, especially after Republicans put control of the House back in play by retaking it in 1994 after 40 years in the minority. Because the parties have a stake in the outcome of local races—and because that could mean control of the House—spending from outside groups has also ramped up.

And it's not just incumbents who are shelling out more. Win or lose, challengers are spending more, too. And the gap between how much winner and loser challengers spend has grown as well. As Open Secrets, the campaign finance data website, points out, a challenger in 1998 had to spend $500,000 or more for an even chance to win. In 2012, it had risen to $2 million or more.

"It's harder for candidates on both sides of an incumbent-challenger race to break through the noise," Malbin says.

View photos

But the increased expense of elections that involve incumbents may not be all bad. In their 1998 bookThe 15 Biggest Lies in Politics, former Rep. Tim Penny along with National Journal Correspondent-at-Large Major Garrett, argued that expensive elections are inherently anti-incumbent.

Costly campaigns force incumbents to raise money and also open up the possibility that a challenger can raise more money than they do, which, as we've seen can be a factor in the outcomes of their races.... Lowering the cost of campaigns also places the nation decidedly on the side of incumbents—which hardly seems like a way to improve confidence in government.

Incumbents benefit just by virtue of holding the job. Money, they argue, gives a challenger one way to overcome that disadvantage. Others argue that outside spending can skew elections in favor of incumbents. But, the fact is, despite decades of rising election costs for both incumbent and challengers, the odds remain relatively unchanged—and strongly in the favor of those who already hold the seat.