Campaign Rhetoric and the Incumbency Advantage



The congressional incumbency advantage reflects an inequity in competition—candidates receive an electoral edge simply because they hold office. Scholars have identified an array of factors that contribute to the incumbency advantage; however, the role of electoral campaigns has been largely ignored. We argue that campaigns are a mechanism through which the incumbency advantage works. All else constant, incumbents focus their campaigns on factors that reflect their standing position, such as their familiarity to voters and actions taken for their district/state. Voters consequently rely on such incumbency factors when making their decisions. The outcome is challengers are at an extreme disadvantage, and campaigns offer scant substantive engagement. We offer evidence for these dynamics with a large-scale content analysis of campaign websites and an experiment. In so doing, we highlight a challenge to theories of democratic representation that focus on equal competition and/or substantive campaign engagement.
Date made available2019

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