By Frank Blechman
Why do incumbent elected officials usually win reelection? Critics would say they win because the elections are “rigged.”
For me, that’s a question of semantics. Yes, in the past, gerrymandered districts have favored incumbents, not just by putting favorable voters in and keeping hostile ones out, but even keeping potential challengers out.
Yes, the rules are confusing and complicated, particularly for first-time candidates. In some places, such as Virginia, getting a new party on the ballot is difficult. Running as an independent isn’t easy either.
Yet, in my experience, the most significant advantages that most incumbents have are none of those things. Incumbents win because they have knowledge that comes from experience.
- They know more about the political business. They know the hoops candidates need to jump through. They know the skills needed to staff a campaign, and where to get them. They know more about how to spend resources (time, money) wisely and effectively. They know how hard a campaign is. (Newbies far too often think it will be “fun.”)
- They know more about the real issues. They almost always know more about how government actually works, what it can and can’t do, and what has been done in the past regarding substantive matters.
- They know more people. Incumbents have spent a lot of time getting to know people and organizations in their district. They know the nuances of how specific issues are understood by different groups of voters. They know more ‘leaders’; who really influences others, and who doesn’t. The best elected officials have built political organizations, structuring support (people, time) to get things done. They have the established relationships to call people and get their calls answered.
- They know how to raise resources. They know and have good relationships with people who have resources, and they know how to ask them to give. (Sure, rookie candidates can learn these things, but it takes time, of which first-timers never have enough.)
- They have better intelligence. Incumbents have networks of people to help them assess how particular issues are resonating (or not) among specific voters. They know far more about how to interpret polling, and how to respond to challenges. They are much less likely to be misled by their own cheering sections.
In my view, incumbents ‘usually’ win because they ‘usually’ run better campaigns than their challengers. Of course, ‘usually’ does not mean always. Incumbents get ambitious, focusing on other offices instead of the one they were elected to. Incumbents get too comfortable, believing their own propaganda about how people love them. Incumbents get lazy. Incumbents who fail to maintain the relationships and the trust that got them elected ‘sometimes’ lose.
‘Sometimes,’ things just change. The incumbent no longer represents the voters of the district, which has changed economically, ideologically, or demographically. ‘Sometimes,’ incumbents get washed away by political tidal waves.
‘Sometimes’ incumbents win. ‘Sometimes’ they lose. ‘Sometimes’ they come back. ‘Sometimes’ they get to spend more time with their families.
To some degree, winning elections is about ‘luck.’ Gambles pay off. The opponent stumbles. The timing is right. But, as Dwight Eisenhower said, “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” Or, as my father always said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
It is popular now to say that political professionals are corrupt, and innocent outsiders are more virtuous. In my experience, however, over the last 50 years, long-term political success is almost always built on the genuine relationships between elected official and their constituents.
I consider that an honest deal.