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10 Strategies for Navigating the Incumbent Advantage

3 min read
Joe Manchin
GoodParty.org Politics Team · Oct 19, 2023

What do the following people have in common:

  • Ron Johnson

  • Mitch McConnell

  • Joe Manchin

If you said that they’re all politicians, you’d be right. But, according to surveys and polling, each of these political figures also has historically low approval ratings. 

In fact, they are the most unpopular people currently serving in our Senate. Yet, voters return them to office time and again. 

Ron Johnson won his reelection with a favorability rating of 37%. Joe Manchin is sitting at 38%, and Mitch McConnell, who was just reelected to represent Kentucky for a seventh term as senator, is now the longest serving senate party leader in the history of our country. 

Somehow, he managed to achieve this with an approval rating that fluctuates between 28% and 33%, making him the least popular senator by far. 

This isn’t a new issue, as polling going back nearly a decade found that although Congress has an overall approval rating between 11% and 14%, there is a 96% rate of reelection for incumbent candidates. If this issue wasn’t ongoing and the numbers so easily verified, one might be tempted to think that the incumbent advantage is a myth. 

Why are politicians who are so unpopular with their constituents routinely chosen over their challengers at such astronomical rates, and what can viable independent candidates do to overcome the incumbent advantage in elections? 

What Is the Incumbent Advantage?

An “incumbent advantage” is the blanket term for the set of privileges and resources that typically favor current office holders who are seeking reelection. These advantages can manifest in various forms and make it challenging for new candidates, especially independent opponents, to break through the established political structure. 

Let's break down some key aspects of the incumbent advantage:

  1. Name recognition: Incumbents enjoy a huge advantage in terms of name recognition. They’ve usually been in the public eye for a long time, attended community events, and appeared in the media for the duration of their term. This level of recognition significantly boosts their reelection campaign efforts.

  2. Fundraising capabilities: Incumbents often have a substantial financial edge. They can tap into established donor networks, corporate contributions, and political action committees (PACs) that have vested interests in maintaining the status quo.

  3. Constituent services: Incumbents have a track record of initiating non-legislative constituent services, such as providing volunteer opportunities and internships for students or linking constituents in need with community resources. Such activities allow incumbents to forge and benefit from strong ties with local organizations and community leaders. It also helps them garner support from influential local figures.

  4. Media access: Incumbents find it easier to get media coverage, whether it be through press releases, interviews, or debates. The media often gives them preferential treatment because of their current position.

  5. Experience: Incumbents can point to their experience in office as an advantage, arguing that they are better equipped to address the challenges facing their constituency.

These advantages hold true whether one is running for a local office or nationally. The only blip in the narrative seems to fall on presidential races, which are the only national office subject to term limits. Depending on what’s happening in the country and the world at large, approval ratings of less than 50% historically limit presidents to a single term. 

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Consider the example of Gerald Ford in 1976 and George H.W. Bush in 1992. Both were vice presidents whom some would say were ushered into office on the coattails of bold but sometimes controversial two-term presidents. But, the incumbent advantage did not benefit them. Ford inherited the presidency after Nixon resigned and failed to win reelection. The senior Bush served only one term. 

The incumbent advantage did not extend to Jimmy Carter, who beat Ford but served only one term because the public held him accountable for severe economic problems at home and an overseas hostage crisis toward the end of his presidency..

However, war can mean reelection for unpopular presidents. Consider Richard Nixon in 1972 and George W. Bush in 2004. In politics, this is known as a “rally ‘round the flag” effect that results in short-term bursts of patriotism and support for incumbent presidents during times of international crisis. 

Further Examples of Incumbent Advantages

In order to understand the challenges that independent candidates face against entrenched establishment figures, let’s take a look at a few historical examples of the incumbent advantage in action:

  • Franklin D. Roosevelt (1936): This is the man for whom presidential term limits exist. In the 1936 presidential election, Franklin D. Roosevelt enjoyed the benefits of incumbency as he sought a second term. His New Deal policies during the height of the Great Depression endeared him to many Americans, and his use of radio for "Fireside Chats" provided him with a direct line of communication to voters. Republican candidate Alf Landon, who opposed the New Deal policies as being bad for business, faced an uphill battle. Ultimately, he only won two states and secured a mere 8 electoral votes. Roosevelt went on to serve a record four terms as president and died in office on April 12, 1945.

  • Mitch McConnell (2020): In his last reelection bid, McConnell was facing a formidable challenger in Amy McGrath and experienced the lowest approval ratings of his nearly 40-year career in the U.S. Senate. McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot, outraised Mitch McConnell by nearly double and had more cash on hand during the final days of their race. She was also highly favored to win in polls. Yet, she lost by 416,911 votes and won only three of Kentucky’s 120 counties.

  • Nancy Pelosi (2018): Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, faced a significant challenge from fellow Democrat Shahid Buttar in the 2018 congressional race. Despite Buttar's progressive platform and grassroots support, Pelosi's incumbency and powerful political connections made it nearly impossible to unseat her.

Navigating the Incumbent Advantage: Tips for Independent Campaigns

Challenging an incumbent as an independent candidate is a daunting task, but it’s not impossible. In order to increase your odds of launching a successful run for office at any level, here are 10 strategies to incorporate into your campaign:

  1. Clearly define your message. Independent candidates need a clear and compelling message that distinguishes them from the incumbent. Identify key issues that resonate with the constituency and offer practical, innovative solutions.

  2. Build a strong grassroots campaign. Embrace the power of grassroots organizing. Engage volunteers, establish a strong, strategic ground game, and build a local network of supporters. Door-knocking, phone banking, and organizing community events are essential components.

  3. Leverage social media and digital outreach. In today's digital age, social media platforms and online advertising can level the playing field to some extent. Use these tools to engage with voters, share your message, and build a following.

  4. Engage in smart fundraising. While it's challenging to match an incumbent's fundraising prowess, focus on small-dollar donations, and utilize online platforms to crowdfund your campaign. Engage with local businesses and individuals who share your vision.

  5. Engage in public debates and forums. Participate in debates, town halls, and other public forums to showcase your knowledge and ideas. This is an opportunity to directly challenge the incumbent's record and demonstrate your competence.

  6. Highlight accountability and transparency. Emphasize the importance of accountability and transparency in government. Highlight instances where the incumbent may have failed to deliver on promises or been embroiled in controversy.

  7. Collaborate with like-minded groups. Seek endorsements and support from organizations, unions, and individuals who align with your platform. Such coalitions and partnerships will expand your reach and lend credibility to your campaign.

  8. Use door-knocking to your advantage. Knocking on doors remains an effective way to connect with constituents on a personal level. Explain your candidacy, listen to their concerns, and offer solutions.

  9. Mobilize your base for voter turnout. Encourage your supporters to get out and vote. Voter turnout can often make the difference in close races. Ensure that your message resonates and mobilizes your base.

  10. Adapt and be persistent. Be prepared for setbacks and remain adaptable. Campaigns against incumbents can be long and arduous. Keep your momentum and persist in your efforts, even in the face of adversity.

Final Thoughts

Challenging an incumbent in a political race is undoubtedly a formidable task, but it’s not an insurmountable one. The incumbent advantage exists, but history has shown that dedicated, passionate, and strategic independent candidates can prevail against all odds. 

By building a strong campaign that’s grounded in clear messaging, grassroots support, and the effective use of available tools and resources, independent candidates can navigate around the perceived advantages of being an incumbent and offer voters a compelling alternative to the status quo. 

Democracy thrives when competition is robust and every voice has the opportunity to be heard. However, the present electoral system means that the onus is on independent candidates to break through the entrenched hegemony of the establishment. 

Allies in Your Fight to Win Against the Establishment

Tough as it is to be an independent candidate in the current two-party system, things are turning in our favor. Voters are looking for alternatives to their current choices for representation, and there are more resources available than ever to help indy candidates reach their audience.

GoodParty.org offers support to independent candidates throughout the country. We’ve worked hard to develop free technology, mentorship, and an army of volunteers who are ready to make your candidacy happen. 

Join us in our mission to build a functional, thriving democracy that truly represents the people.

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Independent Candidates
How to Run for Office
Joe Manchin
By GoodParty.org Politics Team
The GoodParty.org politics team is focused on transforming the political landscape by promoting transparency, accountability, and positive change. They aim to engage citizens in the political process, encourage informed decision-making, and support candidates who prioritize the common good. Their mission revolves around creating a more fair and just political system, fostering collaboration, and breaking down traditional barriers of partisanship.