And how to break it
From time to time on this blog, I’ve talked about “the incumbent rule,” which, as I have framed it, states: All things being equal, voters tend to prefer incumbents. This seems to be especially true in Connecticut, where incumbents at the state level lose only rarely and a sitting governor last lost an election in 1954.
So how do challengers win? If voters prefer incumbents when all things are equal, then things must be made unequal in the challenger’s favor in order for him/her to be successful. Factors both internal (that which candidate can affect) and external (that which the candidate can only take advantage of) to the race can help to tip the balance. Here are a few:
Money: Outraising an incumbent is very, very difficult, but it can be done. If a challenger has the full backing of one of the two major political parties, money can flow in pretty quickly. However, this is exceedingly rare, and all the money in the world won’t help a lousy candidate (see Steve Forbes).
A local example would be Sam Gejdenson, a 20-term incumbent who outraised his 2000 opponent, Rob Simmons, by a respectable margin. However, Gejdenson didn’t use his money wisely, and didn’t defend himself against the pointed attacks about his residency that came his way from Simmons. On election day, he lost 49% to 51%. Simmons didn’t need to raise more money to successfully challenge Gejdenson: he just needed to use what he had in the most effective way.
Personality: A challenger who can connect with voters and is charismatic can gain an advantage over an incumbent who seems aloof or disconnected and has all the charm of a brick. This was one of the many factors which enabled Bill Clinton to win in 1992, and Jimmy Carter to win in 1976. Carter’s advantage on that front was lost, however, when he faced a much more charismatic and engaging man in 1980. Debates are often crucial in races where personality matters.
Active Campaigning: In 1996, Nancy Johnson almost lost to Charlotte Koskoff because, frankly, she wasn’t paying attention and Koskoff was an excellent campaigner. Johnson remedied this and, wielding her incumbency like a club, crushed Koskoff in 1998. Another reason why Gejdenson lost in 2000 was because he didn’t seem like he was particularly concerned that he would lose.
Incumbents, especially longtime ones, can get complacent. A challenger who campaigns hard, raises a respectable amount of money, goes to lots of events, meets a lot of regular voters and has an attractive message can be very dangerous in these situations. George H.W. Bush seemed complacent and disconnected in 1992, and lost to a much more vigorous candidate.
Crisis 1: The Economy: People like incumbents because they tend to like stability. A crisis can shake their sense of stability, and lead them to choose someone new. Remember “It’s the economy, stupid?” It matters. In a fragile or failing economy, voters can become disenchanted with their leaders. Hoover 1932; Carter 1980 and Bush 1992 are good examples. An economic and fiscal crisis led voters to elect an independent, who had lost his Senate seat only two years before, as governor of Connecticut in 1990. The potential loss of the sub base and the economic havoc it would wreak on New London County could lead to voters ditching Rob Simmons next year.
Crisis 2: Corruption: In 1970, incumbent U.S. Senator Thomas J. Dodd, father of current Sen. Christopher Dodd, was heavily defeated by Republican Lowell Weicker. His own party failed to back him in the race, forcing him to run for re-election as an independent. The reason? He was accused of appropriating campaign funds for personal use, falsifying travel records and selling his influence to businessmen. He was acquitted of at least one of the charges, but was formally censured by the Senate in 1967.
The appearance of corruption on the part of Democrats also helped lead to the seismic shift in Congress in 1994.
There are other crises: health, environment, war, etc.
National Political Trends: Why were so many Democrats elected to the General Assembly in 2004? A look at the presidential election map ought to give you an idea. The race at the top of the ticket often has an influence on those farther down it.
The public sometimes adopts an anti-incumbent mood (1994), or pays attention to specific national issues and ideas (abortion).
Missteps by an Opponent: John Kerry’s now-infamous assertion that he had voted for the Iraq War before he voted against it did a lot to cost him the 2004 election. The Bush campaign did everything it could to tar Kerry as a “flip flopper” from that point on. Gerald Ford’s strange assertion that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe didn’t help him in 1976, and Jimmy Carter’s depressing “malaise” speech helped sink him in 1980. Lowell Weicker finally annoyed conservative Republicans just enough in 1988 that they threw him over in favor of the more conservative Democrat Joe Lieberman.
Changing Demographics: Fairfield County used to be a stronghold of Republicans. Now the GOP congressman from the area is facing yet another tough race, simply because more people who might vote Democratic are moving into the area.
These are just some of the ways in which things can be made unequal in political races. What does this mean for next year’s elections?
If Jodi Rell does decide to run, the playing field will probably not be tilted against her because of the corruption of her former boss. She’s done a very efficient job of defusing that crisis by appearing to be a clean government reformer. However, if she faces a strong candidate, and the state appears to be in economic crisis (unlikely but possible: right now everything appears to be, if not great, at least acceptable), she could be in danger. Lodge lost to Ribicoff in 1954 partly because of unemployment.
Rell could also find herself at a disadvantage financially. She has yet to declare her candidacy, and seems unwilling to grant access to lobbyists, traditionally the largest source of campaign dollars.
2006 already has the potential to be a big year for Democrats nationwide, which could also hurt the governor. Republican trends nationwide helped John Rowland in 2002.
In other races, economic trouble related to the Sub Base could help to defeat Rob Simmons, and changing demographics could endanger Chris Shays.
What do you think? Is the incumbent rule nonsense? Are there important ways that challengers can gain advantage that I've missed?