As the mid-term elections approach, a candidate’s best strategy for being elected a congressman or senator is this: already be a congressman or senator.
Indeed, incumbency is the best predictor of success in most national elections, according to Paul S. Herrnson, professor of political science at the University of Connecticut and executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. Hernsson was at Clark University on Monday to deliver the Harrington Lecture, sponsored by the Francis A. Harrington Public Affairs Fund in the Political Science Department and the Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise.
Congressional incumbents win at a 90 percent rate over their challengers, largely because the system is so clearly rigged in their favor, Herrnson said. Districts may be gerrymandered to favor incumbents, who also enjoy greater media visibility and more resources to build an effective campaign structure. Beyond those advantages, it’s difficult to find qualified challengers willing to risk their careers in a losing campaign against a well-entrenched incumbent.
Right after one election ends, incumbents immediately begin campaigning for re-election, according to Herrnson, spending a significant amount of their workday raising money. Using sophisticated research, they fashion fundraising pitches toward specific demographic groups and once they’ve shown they can raise money in their home districts they pursue large donations from national interests.
Incumbency feeds on itself, he said. Officeholders have an experienced organization and fundraising infrastructure, and they offer governmental access to those who are advancing a specific cause or agenda. Herrnson said challengers simply don’t enjoy the advantages accorded to someone who already is in office. “It’s all catch-up [for a challenger],” he said. As such, incumbent campaigns are generally run from a defensive posture: avoid scandal, stay the course, and hope your challenger runs out of money.
Herrnson offered several more thoughts on elections:
- While the status quo prevails in most races, there can be anomalies. At various times in history “partisan tides” have brought an influx of new blood into Congress, often driven by an ideological movement. These so-called tsunami elections “wash strange creatures onto shore, and wash them out,” he said.
- “It’s always better to survive a primary than not have one,” Herrnson explained. A hard-fought primary gives a candidate more visibility (the media won’t cover uncontested races) and a rallying point for fundraising.
- The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has opened the door to a campaign finance system that has “disintegrated,” he said. Corporations, labor unions, trade associations and others whose giving — often through PACs (political action committees) — was more accountable, now can funnel money in record amounts to campaigns through entities like 527 and 501 (c) organizations. That has led to a system where interest groups are outspending candidates. For instance, between January and August, the billionaire Koch brothers in 2014 funded 44,000 ads, at a cost of $45 million, to support conservative candidates and causes.
Herrnson noted that more money is being poured into negative advertising. “It’s much easier to tear down an opponent than build up a candidate,” he said. “We tend to remember negative ads because they have zingers.”
The fallout from this trend, he said, is that it’s more difficult to run a campaign based on ideas.