Incumbent: Definition & Advantages

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 0:42 Advantages of Incumbents
  • 3:05 When Is It a Disadvantage?
  • 3:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has a JD and a BA in sociology and political science.

An incumbent is the 'defending champ' in a political race. We discuss the many advantages that incumbents have over their challengers and look at the times in which they are at a slight disadvantage.


Imagine you were in Las Vegas, and you had to make a bet on who was going to win a soccer match. You can choose between the experienced defending champions or the up-and-coming team that is relatively new to the scene. Who would you bet on?

If you are like most people, you would probably hedge your bets on the defending champion. The same goes for politics. In political campaigns, the 'defending champion' in an election is called the incumbent. Put another way, an incumbent is the political candidate that currently occupies the position that he or she is running for. For example, in the 2004 election, the incumbent candidate for president seeking re-election was George W. Bush.

Advantages of Incumbents

Incumbents generally have a major advantage over their opponents when seeking re-election. In fact, since the 1960s, at least 80% of incumbents have been re-elected in every single Congressional election. There are several reasons for this. First, incumbents have an advantage over their opponents because they have name recognition. Voters are familiar with the candidate's name and are familiar with what the candidate represents.

Second, incumbents already have organized campaigns that have won in the past. For example, Barack Obama, the incumbent presidential candidate in the 2012 election, was able to reconvene his political campaign from 2008 to encourage voter turnout for his re-election. He was re-elected.

Third, incumbents have an advantage because of their role as an elected official. For one, Congressmen are allocated money for communicating with constituents via flyers and newsletters at the government's expense. Although this material is supposed to only be informative in nature, candidates use this media as a way to earn re-election.

The example of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie shows how incumbent candidates can use their office to their advantage. In the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy, Christie's office launched an ad campaign to restore tourism to the New Jersey Shore. Christie's office rejected a cheaper bid from a marketing company and accepted a more expensive bid that used the governor as a major focal point of the ad campaign. Although the ads were to improve tourism on the New Jersey shore, Christie gained free publicity and television time in an election year. He easily won re-election.

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