Study: Incumbency a $500,000 Advantage for Campaigns

Thursday, 03 Jul 2014 12:51 PM

By John Blosser

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When election time rolls around, it pays to be an incumbent – to the tune of about $500,000.

In a new study from the London School of Economics and Harvard University titled "The Financial Incumbency Advantage: Causes and Consequences," researchers and doctoral candidates Alexander Fouirnaies and Andrew B. Hall point out that on average, an incumbent politician running for national office, especially for a second term, enjoys a $500,000 advantage in contributions over their competitors.

The pair studied races for the House of Representatives from 1980 to 2006 and state legislatures from 1990 to 2010, paying close attention to first-time officeholders who won a close election, when it came time to raise money for their re-election drive.

The New York Times noted that the contributors who cause the advantage are more likely to be "access-oriented interest groups," such as corporations and trade groups, rather than ideologically motivated or individual contributors.

Further, the article notes that "access-oriented interest groups," who are more likely to switch party allegiances in candidates they support than are ideologically motivated donors, are onetime heavy donors, usually after a close race and only in the second time the incumbent politician is seeking re-election.

"This bump you get as the incumbent pretty much happens the first time you become the incumbent," Hall told the Times. "Even though the district was very competitive that one time you won, you’re then expected to be around for a very long time."

The Times cites the case of Republican Rep. Rodney Davis, who won in Illinois’ 13th Congressional District by just over a thousand votes. He raised $645,797 in that campaign but, for his re-election drive, through March, he had raised $1.2 million from PACs.

The incumbent edge is increasing – the Times notes that in 1972, incumbents enjoyed a 3-to-2 advantage over their opponents, but since then, that has risen to a 4-to-1 advantage.

The study notes, "There is a large financial incumbency advantage in U.S. legislatures … But this advantage does not come equally from all donors. Instead, while individuals and ideological interest groups support candidates based on a variety of other factors, access-motivated interest groups coordinate intensively on incumbents. As a result, access-motivated interest groups generate approximately two-thirds of the financial incumbency advantage."

State legislature incumbents do even better than national incumbents, the study finds.

Further, Democratic incumbents have a 20-25 percentage point edge over challengers in both federal and state races from party contributions. Access-oriented groups made up 60 percent of the national advantage and 71 percent of the state incumbent advantage.

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