Is it easier or harder for an incumbent to win re-election?

Lets say in 2018 you won a seat in Congress. Now you must win another election to keep your seat.

Now back in 2018 you had the advantage of being this new person with a fresh face and new ideas. Now you have to show you have done your job to help the people who you represent.

You have also only been in Washington for 2 years which is hardly time to make much difference. You made all kinds of promises back in 2018 but have done little.

Your opponent now is the new person with the fresh face and new ideas while you are now the career politician who should be tossed out.

Or maybe not.

So in your opinion is it easier or harder for an incumbent to win re-election?

As a general rule, for a seat in the House of Representatives, it’s far, far easier to win as an incumbent. Unless you’ve actively pissed off your party, been generally an idiot or a criminal while in office, or had skeletons in your closet from your past come to light, you likely have your party’s support, and typically won’t see a serious challenge during your party primary.

And, relatively few congressional districts are particularly competitive these days – they’ve largely been gerrymandered to lean strongly to one party or the other. So, unless you’re in one of the relatively rare “purple” districts, you’re unlikely to lose the general election, either.

Incumbency is almost always an advantage.

In the last three HoR elections, incumbents had a 94% win rate.

There was an article in yesterday’s Times about a Democratic woman in, I think, Michigan, who beat a sitting Republican two years ago. She said that a big reason she won was that the Trump cultists didn’t bother voting since their leader wasn’t on the ballot. He will of course be there in November and she was not terribly optimistic about her chance of holding on to her seat.

The heavy incumbency win rate is perhaps slightly skewed by the fact that, when an incumbent gets a strong sense that he/she is not going to get re-elected, they may simply choose to not run for re-election at all. There was a spate of Republicans in 2018 that chose not to stand for another term for this reason.

A lot of Republican Representatives retired in 2016 and again in 2018. Many of them figured they had a poor chance of winning again, or felt they didn’t have the energy to go up against a Tea Party or Trumpist primary challenger.

It’s certainly true that an incumbent is generally most vulnerable in their first reelection campaign. They’re still trying to figure out how to balance legislating and campaigning, they don’t have the seniority to bring back projects to their district or raise big donor money, and if they were elected in a “wave election” they may find themselves out of step with their district when the wave recedes. That said, it’s still better to be the incumbent with at least some name recognition, donor base and campaign apparatus in place for two years before the election.

It’s still pretty heavy for the incumbent. Counting all “true” retirements (not retiring to run for a higher office) as an incumbent loss only drops the average win rate to 89%.

Basically, incumbents have a better win record than Tom Brady does with the Patriots.