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6 The Incumbency Advantage in House Elections Warren G. Harding won one of the largest popular vote landslides in American history in the 1920 presidential election when he defeated James M. Cox with more than 60 percent of the popular vote. Following on his presidential coattails were 62 new Republicans elected to the House of Representatives, giving the Republicans a margin of 302– 131 seats in that chamber. The subsequent election two years later, however, represented one of the largest turnarounds in electoral fortunes at the midterm for an incumbent president and his party. In 1922, Republicans lost 77 seats in the House, which has been attributed to the lingering effects of the 1920–1921 economic recession. Despite the overwhelming Democratic win in 1922, 72 percent of Republican incumbents who sought reelection were successful. Looking at the electoral patterns from the 1922 midterm election more closely, it seems clear that Republicans may have anticipated that the midterms posed considerable electoral uncertainty. Indeed, fewer than twothirds of Republican incumbents even sought reelection in 1922. For those Republican incumbents who faced an amateur or inexperienced challenger in the midterm, 91 percent went on to win reelection. In contrast, 64 percent of Republican incumbents who ran against a quality Democratic challenger lost. Even more interesting is that not one quality Republican candidate emerged to face a Democratic incumbent during the midterm election. The preceding story illustrates some of the myriad complexities involved in determining the extent to which incumbents enjoy an advantage in House elections. We can only speculate as to what the fate of the retiring Republican incumbents would have been in 116 The Incumbency Advantage in House Elections 117 the 1922 midterm election. Some may have won, others likely would have lost, but the data we presented in Chapter 4 suggests that in a normal year, far more Republican incumbents would have sought reelection. A casual look at reelection rates may lead one to conclude that incumbents fare well electorally even if national conditions favor the opposing party. However, the large number of retirements among Republican incumbents combined with strategic entry decisions on the part of Democrats in 1922 suggests that a more nuanced story is needed. The patterns of entry and exit in 1922 demonstrate the opportunities and obstacles inherent in trying to discern the effects of incumbency on election outcomes. Given that slightly more than one-third of Republican incumbents chose not to subject themselves to the judgment of the voters, it is undoubtedly harder to discern the effects of incumbency on election outcomes as many of the retirees likely anticipated a tough election with uncertain prospects for victory. Additionally, the fact that all Democratic incumbents ran against weak Republican challengers surely inflated the proportion of Democrats who won in 1922 beyond what we would expect to win with a more even distribution of quality candidate emergence. While 1922 is an extreme case of an unfavorable electoral environment for one of the major parties, the measurement intricacies are not unique to this particular election. National conditions, electoral institutions, and individual decisions about entry and exit shape the context for each biennial congressional election. In this chapter we use our historical elections database to provide a comprehensive account of the incumbency advantage from 1872–1944. Our approach does not solve all the measurement issues noted above, but the breadth and depth of our data series do allow us to make inferences about the changing nature of the incumbency advantage over time. 6.1 The Incumbency Advantage in Congress To date, few issues in American politics have received as much attention and scrutiny as the existence of, and the basis for, the incumbency advantage in congressional elections. Since the first studies appeared in the congressional elections literature recognizing the advantages accruing to incumbents (Erikson 1971; Fiorina 1977; Mayhew 1974), and continuing with more recent, innovative attempts to estimate the extent of that advantage in congressional elections (Ansolabehere, 118 Ambition, Competition, and Electoral Reform Snyder, and Stewart III 2000; Cox and Katz 1996, 2002; Garand and Gross 1984; Gelman and King 1990; Stonecash 2008), political scientists have expended considerable effort analyzing the incumbency advantage. Along the way, a variety of possible explanations have been considered to account for the elevated and growing reelection rates of legislators in the modern era. Among some of the more widely accepted explanations for the incumbency advantage are the resources of the congressional office, growth in the costs of waging a successful congressional campaign , and the limited...


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