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The Value of Incumbency - Essay Example

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The advantage that a member of congress has in a reelection bid has been a distinct factor in elections throughout history, but has become more heavily ingrained in the system since 1958 (Erickson). Incumbents are reelected at exceedingly high rates, partially due to friendly district voters, and often due to the margin gained by what is known as the incumbency advantage…
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The Value of Incumbency The advantage that a member of congress has in a reelection bid has been a distinct factor in elections throughout history, but has become more heavily ingrained in the system since 1958 (Erickson). Incumbents are reelected at exceedingly high rates, partially due to friendly district voters, and often due to the margin gained by what is known as the incumbency advantage. The form that the advantage takes can be as devious as pandering or as simple as good politics, but usually money is a key factor. The experienced politician is able to exploit these advantages without falling victim to the pitfalls that holding office can present. Incumbency is a valued commodity in any election and can mean the difference between winning and losing, but the problem it creates for the system, and for the voters, is not so readily apparent.
Incumbents have a de facto advantage because they are running as the hometown favorite. Their district has elected them once, and barring scandal there is no reason for the voters to turn on them. With a little good government and giving the constituents the legislation they prefer, an incumbent should have an advantage. But for most of them this is not enough. The sitting congressman has the purse strings to offer pork barrel projects, highway funds, military spending, and special incentives to their district. This is openly viewed as buying votes and it is a favor that the challenger is unable to provide. They can also raise money for advertising.
Incumbents have the inside track on raising campaign funds year round. They have been in office and talking to lobbyists willing to contribute. Contributors are eager to donate money with the hopes of gaining access to the incumbent's influence. PACs have been formed to raise money to support key issues and they can capitalize on the news for public exposure. If the voters are unfamiliar with the challenger, the incumbent has an opportunity to define them (Gerber). Self-promotion is also accomplished to their advantage by the use of their existing experienced staff and free mailings used to highlight their work (Erickson). After taking advantage of all these perks and still trailing in the polls, the congressman always has the option of pushing for redistricting to gain a new advantage. The opposition candidate running from outside the system is not afforded any of these advantages.
However, even the most seasoned politician can fall prey to the dangers of being an incumbent. One of threats can come from affiliation with an ineffective party in control of Congress or the White House. The incumbent, right or wrong, will be linked to a failed national or foreign policy (Patterson). Bad economic conditions can work against an incumbent even though it may be out of their control. A sitting office holder also runs the risk of being tainted by scandal through innocent association with lobbyists, political contributors, or other lawmakers.
If a congressman is an effective legislator, has been fair to his constituents, and stayed above scandal they should enjoy some advantage. The system and the voters benefit from the reelection of an experienced lawmaker sympathetic to the needs of the people. However, exploiting the system to maximize the advantage to unrealistic levels, using tax money for the purpose of campaigning, and using their office as a self-promoting platform has become far too entrenched in national politics. High dollar advertising has led campaigns away from the issues and the potential for incumbents to manipulate voters looms as a grave warning to our representative form of democracy.
Works Cited
Erickson, Stephen C. "The Entrenchment of Incumbency Reelections In the US House of Representatives, 1790-1994." The CATO Journal 14. 28 Mar. 2006 .
Gerber, Alan. "Estimating the Effect of Campaign Spending on Senate Election Outcomes Using Instrumental Variables." American Political Science Review 92 (1998): 401-412. Infotrac. 28 Mar. 2006 .

Patterson, Thomas E. We the People. 4th ed. McGraw Hill, 2002. 28 Mar. 2006 . Read More
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