Incumbency in Contemporary House & Senate Elections: Definition & Advantages

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  • 0:03 Incumbency
  • 0:50 Fundrasing
  • 1:38 Name Recognition
  • 2:44 Media Access
  • 3:45 Franking Privileges
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Williams

Jennifer has taught various courses in U.S. Government, Criminal Law, Business, Public Administration and Ethics and has an MPA and a JD.

In this lesson, we will review the importance of incumbency in congressional elections. We will take a closer look at the factors that make it an advantage and what they mean to the outcome of an election.


An incumbent in politics is the existing holder of a political office. This term is usually used when someone is talking about an election because political races can be held between incumbents and non-incumbents. An example of an incumbent election race would be the 2012 U.S. Presidential Race in which Barack Obama was the incumbent because he was the president in the previous term.

History has shown that an incumbent in a congressional race has an advantage. In fact, between 1964 and 2008, the incumbent in Congress was reelected over 85% of the time! This lesson will take a closer look at these advantages to see why.


Fundraising is the identification and solicitation of people or companies to invest in a campaign. This is very important in an election. An incumbent has a distinct advantage of working with a group of people who have successfully gotten him elected to Congress before. This staff already has the connections to people who will donate and the benefit of knowing what works and, more importantly, what doesn't.

Additionally, incumbents and their staff have been making contacts throughout their current term. The benefit of these contacts is that they can support the congressional candidate financially during a reelection campaign, especially if the incumbent is making decisions in Congress that the connections approve of.

Name Recognition

In politics, name recognition is the term used to describe the ability of people to recognize a politician's name. Congressional candidates with low name recognition are unlikely to be elected. For a congressional incumbent, this individual has had the benefit of public attention. She has had her name in the paper and on radio, billboards, and television and is easily searched on the Internet. Members of Congress give plenty of interviews, participate in debates, and have their voting records reviewed regularly. What this means is that during the election for the next term, the incumbent's name pops up easier on a Google search than the non-incumbent's name does.

Additionally, name recognition helps the uneducated voter. If you were unfamiliar with the current candidates for a position, the odds are great that seeing a familiar name on the voting ballot will make you vote for them, even if you know nothing about them other than having heard their name somewhere before.

Media Access

The media includes mass communication, television, radio, newspapers, and the Internet. Media has a huge influence on politics and social change. An incumbent gives regular interviews or reports as part of their current job as a congressman. Although a congressman cannot use public funds for campaigning, he can certainly use media and social media to get his name and message out as part of his current role.

Additionally, the advent of social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, has helped the incumbent spread his message under the guise of just keeping the public updated. Having the ability to do this is definitely an advantage of the incumbent because when his face is seen on television, it is usually because he is part of the news. If the challenger's, or non-incumbent's, face is seen, it is because he's campaigning. Who do you think people pay attention to more?

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