The re-election rates of members of Congress are very high because incumbents have enormous advantages over their challengers. Morris Fiorina, David Mayhew, Timothy Cook, Richard Fenno, and David Price are all political scientists who support this statement with their essays written on the topic.
Morris Fiorina’s essay entitled “The Rise of the Washington Establishment” provides some insight into the advantages that incumbents have over their opponents. He stated that out of all things a congressman can do to win re-election, pork barreling and casework are the most powerful tools he can use. He went on to state that a congressman’s lawmaking activities are programmatic and much more controversial than pork barreling or casework because people are divided on many major issues. Thus, when a congressman engages in lawmaking activities, he will make friends as well as enemies, and no matter how hard he tries to keep everyone satisfied, there will always be at least a few people who oppose his actions. Fiorina wrote that word of mouth is still the most effective form of communication. When a constituent calls in to ask a favor of the congressman because the Bureaucracy is too slow or not giving them what they want, the congressman (or his staff) get right on it no matter what party the voter is loyal to because when the favor is done, that person will spread the word of the congressman’s good deed.
Fiorina stated that Pork barreling and casework are also more obvious and visible to constituents. They can see more jobs and new facilities and projects and favors being done for people. They can’t always see how a law is affecting them. Also, he went on to make the point that a single congressman can take the credit for a project he got for his district, and certainly take credit for a favor that was done for a constituent in his district, but he can not claim that he was responsible for the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act. Opponents running against an incumbent do not have an office that takes the calls of constituents that have requests for help. They also do not have the power to get federal projects for the district. Thus, opponents are left with few ways to get the approval of constituents and incumbents have the advantages of pork barreling and doing casework.
David Mayhew writes that an important advantage enjoyed by house incumbents is that they are much better known by constituents than their challengers in his essay, “Congress: The Electoral Connection”. Incumbents are better known to the people because they give speeches on radio or television, they send mail to the constituents, or they write for newspapers for the voters in the district they represent. Another advantage is credit claiming, which is taking the credit for doing something that is beneficial to the district so that the constituents know the congressman is doing good for them. Also, Mayhew brought up casework, as did Fiorina. Next, Mayhew stated that another activity a congressman can do to raise his already high chances of winning reelection is position taking. A congressman does not necessarily need to make good things happen, but just say pleasing things. Congressman do this almost indirectly so instead of saying they sponsored a bill they say they support the legislation’s decision.
Timothy Cook, on the other hand, says that the media is an incumbent’s most powerful advantage. In his essay, “Media Power and Congressional Power”, Cook stated that the way the media covers events works to the incumbent’s advantage. The media, even local stations, devote a lot more time and effort to things like presidential elections rather than House elections because their main priority is to get viewers, and more people are interested in a new president than a new congressman. This works to the incumbent’s advantage because this way the incumbent has more control over the content, the timing, and the tone of their coverage when it comes time. Then, in effect of this, constituents end up with a lack of information and they lean towards the incumbent because they have no reason to be against him.
In his book “Home Style”, Richard Fenno wrote about what House incumbents do when they go home to their districts when they are not working in Washington. He stated that the thing representatives concentrate on most when at home in their districts is “presentation of self”. This is the way they present themselves to constituents, but it is not just what incumbents say but also their nonverbal expressions. It is on these nonverbal expressions that constituents make judgments on. The results incumbents are looking for include trust and support. Fenno went on to make the point that because presentation of self gains trust, and trust enhances the acceptability of explanations which gives more voting leeway to the incumbent, presentation of self is what gives an incumbent voting leeway. Presentation of self also gains votes, because when constituents make their judgments, they will think “(S)he’s a good guy” (that is, if the incumbent did a good job presenting him or herself), and then those people will vote for that incumbent. So with this powerful advantage incumbents can even further boost their already lofty chances of reelection.
David Price provides some interesting insight into the advantages incumbents have with his book “The Congressional Experience”. He stated that many incumbents use the method of “Congress-Bashing” to win votes. Congressmen try to get out the message to constituents that they are good and all the others at congress are bad. This downgrades Congress and hurts the institution. But many do it and it is on the rise. This is still an advantage to incumbents even though it hurts Congress as a whole.
In conclusion, incumbents have many important advantages over their challengers that allow them to hold their positions in office and get reelected time after time. Some of these advantages include pork-barreling, casework, credit claiming, position taking, use of the media, “congress-bashing”, and presentation of self.