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In politics, an incumbent is someone who holds a political office, position, or title. Usually, the term only comes up during elections, when an incumbent may be challenged for a position by another politician. This word comes from a Latin root meaning “to lie down,” which came to mean “to possess.” This term is also used in business, to describe a company with major clout in an industry, or an individual who is primarily responsible for the operations of a company.
Incumbents sometimes have an advantage in elections. Constituents often prefer to vote for incumbents because they know that the incumbent has experience in the position, and if he or she has been doing a good job, constituents might prefer to simply keep the incumbent in place. Incumbents also have an extensive network of connections and supporters which they can exploit during an election to increase their chances of being re-elected. They can also draw upon concrete examples of the beneficial work they did while in office to persuade voters to re-elect them.
However, an incumbent may also be forced to cope with backlash. If things did not go well during the previous term, whether or not it was the incumbent's fault, voters may react by voting the incumbent out of office. Sometimes, an anti-incumbency movement will rise up in a community, with activists organizing a concerted effort to remove as many incumbents from office as possible, with the goal of radically changing the government at the local, state, or national level.
Challengers to a political seat often harness this attitude, making up for lack of political connections and experience with a platform focused heavily on political change. Sometimes, a political party will also provide support to such candidates, as in the Democratic Party's Red to Blue Program in the United States, which offers assistance to Democrats attempting to shake up traditionally Republican districts.
On a ballot, the incumbent is often identified with “incumbent” beside his or her name, along with party affiliation. For people who have difficulty keeping track of political officials, this can be extremely useful, as it allows them to decide whether they want to vote to maintain the status quo, or whether they want to try someone new. However, it's still a good idea to research the challengers, as their policies might be even worse than those of the incumbent, thereby making the situation even worse.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is an incumbent in political terms?
An incumbent is an individual currently holding a political office or position. In electoral contexts, incumbents often have a significant advantage due to their existing name recognition, established political networks, and access to campaign resources. According to a study by the American Journal of Political Science, incumbents in the U.S. Congress have historically enjoyed high re-election rates, sometimes exceeding 90%.
How does incumbency affect elections?
Incumbency can greatly affect elections, as incumbents typically have several advantages over challengers. These include greater visibility, experience in campaigning, and a track record that can appeal to voters. Moreover, incumbents usually have easier access to campaign funding and media coverage. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that incumbents often raise significantly more money than their challengers, which can be a decisive factor in an election.
What are the disadvantages of being an incumbent?
Despite the advantages, incumbency can also come with disadvantages. Incumbents may carry the burden of their previous decisions in office, especially if those decisions were unpopular. They can be held accountable for any dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. Additionally, long-term incumbents may be criticized for being out of touch with their constituents or for contributing to political stagnation.
Can incumbency lead to political dynasties?
Yes, incumbency can sometimes contribute to the formation of political dynasties, where family members succeed each other in office or hold multiple political positions simultaneously. This phenomenon can occur due to the strong name recognition and established political networks that benefit both incumbents and their relatives. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, about 10% of the 115th Congress (2017-2019) had family members who also served in Congress.
What is the 'incumbent advantage' and how significant is it?
The 'incumbent advantage' refers to the electoral edge that current officeholders have over their challengers. This advantage is significant and multifaceted, encompassing factors like name recognition, a proven track record, and greater access to campaign funds and resources. The incumbent advantage is quantifiable; for instance, the Brookings Institution notes that incumbents in the U.S. House of Representatives often win re-election by margins of 10 percentage points or more over their challengers.