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Electoral Campaigns and the Incumbency Advantage: How Institutions Generate Competitive Inequities (WP-17-18)

James Druckman, Martin Kifer, and Michael Parkin

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 largely been ignored. The researchers use an experiment to study how distinct candidate rhetoric affects voters’ decision-making. They find that the campaigns matter. Voters tend to rely on criteria that inherently favor incumbents (e.g., familiarity) unless the incumbent employs a rhetorical strategy emphasizing issues and image. This leaves challengers at an extreme disadvantage in campaigns. The results highlight the connections between congressional institutions, candidate campaigns, and voter decisions. They also raise normative complications for theories of democratic responsiveness and competition.

James Druckman, Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science and IPR Fellow, Northwestern University

Martin Kifer, Associate Professor of Political Science, High Point University

Michael Parkin, Professor of Politics, Oberlin College

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