Incumbent Congressmen are reelected an average of 95% of the time (Bernstein). In the long-term this tendency puts the United States where the best-known man or woman is elected instead of the man or woman best suited for the job. Consequently the United States Congress ends up being more like an exclusive club of cronies than an institution designed to "be of the people, by the people, for the people" (Lincoln).
There are four primary reasons why incumbents tend to be reelected : name recognition, incumbents have opportunities to establish favorable relationships with voters, strong opponents do not tend to run against incumbents, and incumbents tend to "run scared" (Bernstein). Bernstein cites studies that indicate that voters often will vote based on someone they recognize therefore they look for a name they recognize rather than deciding whom to vote for based on issues. Incumbents have an extensive advantage over challengers because their names are more easily recognized by many votes. Congressmen have the franking privilege that allows them to send flyers and mailers to constituents at no cost.
This not only increases their name recognition, but also to at least give the appearance they are involved in their district and are concerned about the people living there. While in office incumbents receive year-round national, media coverage, instead of just during the campaign as challengers do. Curiously despite this name recognition advantage, many citizens are unable to name their Congressman and Senators. Incumbents also have the ability to increase their popularity based on their ability to do casework for individuals "such as find lost Social Security checks" (Bernstein).
This creates good will for the incumbent while he and his staff are doing their jobs while on the federal payroll. Since challengers are most often defeated, individuals and organizations are unwilling to give as much money to campaign funds as they are to incumbents. These people are unwilling to be publicly linked with a losing organization. This lack of funds results in a self-defeating prophecy because challengers lack name recognition they receive fewer donations and are unable to spend money to establish name recognition.
Due to their lack of name recognition challengers are unable to pay for advertising campaigns and finance other election strategies (Bernstein). Similarly, the third reason for frequent reelection is a self-fulfilling prophecy for the incumbent. Since incumbents win so much of the time, strong candidates are less likely to run against them since being defeated in an election can signal an end to a political career. Lastly, although Congressmen are almost always reelected, many Congressmen "run scared.
" They spend their term of office trying to make certain they will be reelected. They work to increase their name recognition and work to increase their popularity (Bernstein). Ultimately the advantages to incumbents pose a threat to the United States. Since our system has the effect of preferring incumbents without regard to abilities, the number of new people outside the status quo who might bring new ideas and life to Congress by running for office is growing ever smaller. This trend also signals a lack of awareness and knowledge among voters.
Rather than carefully researching a candidate's positions it has become the norm to rely on name recognition or party affiliation to determine which candidate one votes for. Hamilton describes this threat and its consequences, "lack of understanding among ordinary Americans concerns me deeply because it increases the public's suspicions and cynicism about the Congress, weakens the relationship between voters and their representatives, makes it harder for public officials to govern, and prevents our representative democracy from working the way it should" (Hamilton). This threat is very real and needs to be addressed before it is too late.
Bernstein, Jeffrey, "What High School Government Teachers Should Know about Congressional Elections. " 2006. The Dirksen Congressional Center 30 Mar. 2007 < http://www. congresslink. org/print_expert_congressionalelections. htm>. Hamilton, Lee. "What I Wish Political Scientists Would Teach about Congress. " 2006. The Dirksen Congressional Center 30 Mar. 2007. < http://www. congresslink. org/ print_expert_polisciteach. htm>. Lincoln, Abraham. "The Gettysburg Address. " 2007. Abraham Lincoln Online 30 Mar. 2007 < http://showcase. netins. net/web/creative/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg. htm>.