Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Incumbent Rule

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:

Internal Factors

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.

External Factors

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?


Anonymous said...

Focus on the incumbant's hypocrisy, such as Rell's support of the planned lawsuit over fund mandates in "No Child Left Behind" law.

(Mashantucket-AP, Aug. 16, 2005 1:25 PM) _ Hundreds of teachers from the state's largest teacher's union gave Governor Rell a round of applause this morning when she reiterated her support for a planned lawsuit over the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Blumenthal had to ask for legislation, when Rell could have authorized suit on her own.

Anonymous said...


I think your analysis is generally very astute-- the generalities capture the "theory of the case" quiet nicely.

I disagree on one or two of the specific applications to CT, however. First, Fairfield County is not really changing because more Democrats are moving in-- rather, more people are voting Democrat because of national social issue trends. My guess is that the vast majority of R's and I's in the Fourth agree with Republicans on most fiscal issues-- but disagree on most social issues. With President Bush's stances on abortion, stem cell research, teaching creationism, etc., more and more are voting Democrat. Shays has successfully navigated this by strategically distancing himself from the President.

There is another interesting factor I've heard of in the Shays race-- conservative REpublicans voting for Farrell. The idea is that the Fourth CD is naturally Republican, and if they can get moderate Shays out, they can put "one of their own" in. I think they are smoking something.

As for Simmons in Second CD, he will win if the sub base stays open and will lose if it closes. Simple as that-- I think it is a one issue race.

Governor Rell will win handily unless one of two things happens: one (as you say) the economy takes a downturn or two, Dick Blumenthal decides to give her a run for the money. Otherwise it is a question of how big her margin is.

Finally, you didn't mention the "sophomore effect". If incumbents do get beat, it is usually the first time they are up for RE-election. With new Democratic Senators in Milford, Stamford, and Norwalk (amongst others), it will be interesting to see if the Republicans can put up credible candidates to knock them off. My guess is no, but we will see.

Aldon Hynes said...

So, will Mayor DeStefano be able to break The Incumbent Rule?

Looking at your analysis:

Money: It looks like we're in good position on the fundraising. Will we spend it wisely? I hope so. What will Rell's fundraising be like? That will be interesting to watch.

Personality: I think Mayor DeStefano comes out ahead in this category. Yeah some people say that Mayor DeStefano can be a bit dorky, others say that Governor Rell is a bit stiff. Personally, I'ld rather have chianti with John than cocktails with Jodi.

Active Campaigning: I sure hope we can lead in active campaigning. I'm glad that a lot of people think that Rell is unbeatable. It gives us a chance to pull ahead in active campaigning.

The economy: Today, yet another company announced that it is leaving Connecticut. We are 50th in job creation. Will that be enough to get people concerned? That will be a big question.

Corruption: I don't think this is going to play a significant role.

National political trends: This will be very interesting to watch. My guess is that it will be a plus for Mayor DeStefano, but that is a hard call.

Missteps: I imagine everyone is hoping there won't be missteps.

Changing Demographics: I live in Fairfield County. I hear a lot about this, but I'm not sure I believe it. I think the national trends are more significant.

Anyway, that is my brief analysis.

Genghis Conn said...


You and Aldon have more direct experience than I do with Fairfield County, and I think you're probably right. National Republicans are becoming more conservative socially, but the New England variety is a different animal.

As for voting Dem to get the RINO out... Republicans did the same to Lowell Weicker in 1988. Joe Lieberman is still in office and still votes with his party on most issues, last I checked. Not a great strategy.

I haven't seen statistics about the "sophomore effort" yet. Might be something worth researching.

As for Blumenthal... I have a suspicion that if he does run, his campaign will turn out to be a dud. It's been a very long time since he's been in a competitive race, and Rell is gunning for him.

Genghis Conn said...


Good points. I think national political trends won't have too much of an effect here, as Rell has distanced herself from national Republicans on several occasions.

I think she will raise money, but the numbers won't be anywhere near Rowland's. An early start for Democrats might make the money race astonishingly even, if the primary doesn't burn everybody out.

I heard about International Paper. In Enfield, it's reported that Casual Corner, long a corporate staple in town, is starting to lay off workers. Gas prices are up, inflation is up... If the sub base closes... people may indeed start taking notice.

Slow Rheal Cormier said...

I have to say I generally agree with Genghis's analysis on the gubernatorial race. I like all three democratic candidates, but right now I just don't think they have what it takes to break through Rell's popularity ratings.

I keep waiting for one of the to show me a sign of life. Some fresh new idea or strategy that will allow them to knock of Jodi, but so far i see nothing.

FrankS said...

Elections in Connecticut have rarely been contests amoung equals or semi-equals. Most sitting Governors have declined to face a truely contested race, so these races offer little support for the incumbent rule in a statewide race.

In U.S. Rep. races, the factors are generally local, but voter turnout in presidential year elections have an impact. I agree that Gejdenson lost because of questions raised on his residency, a self-inficted wound. Rowland over Ratchford had more to do with Regan's infulence, Maloney over Franks involved Waterbury isues, Morrison over DeNardis had New Haven's democratic slant correcting Regan's coattails.

In the U.S. Senate races, Weicker's win over Dodd had more to do with Duffy's presence and the close margin in Lieberman's win over Weicker could be rationalized a hundred different ways, but I think his service as Attorney General gave him the advantage and in a sense both were incumbants, Lieberman would still have been Attorney General had he lost.

In 2006, if it is Rell and Blumenthal, the race will be a better test of the rule.

Nate said...

Since Rell is so popular, I think she needs to be taken on head-on, early and often. I firmly believe a challenger cannot win just by offering an alternative to such a popular incumbent such as Rell.

I think a Dem could beat her by targeting her as out of touch with the realities facing the state, and showing how that hurts us all. A few examples:

*Traffic problems snarl I-95, and she instead wants a busway connecting New Britain and Hartford.

*People outside of gov't knew Rowland was crooked; did it never occur to his second in command to question whether there were truth to those rumors in 9 years? We got neck deep in an ethics hole (and stuck with things like the Juvenile Detention Center) because she didn't ask questions earlier.

*The state is dead last in the country in job creation. The governor reacts to job losses after the fact with her "stern aunt" routine, saying how "disappointed" or "unhappy" she is about it.

Of course, these all need to be backed up by a Dem challenger with solutions. Many of them are already being offered, including ethics reform, campaign reform, better public transportation (in the right places!) to ease traffic, and aggressively marketing our state's highly educated workforce (top ranked in the country/world) to emerging industries like biotech, computing, etc. The solutions are the most important thing, but a Dem challenger needs to relentlessly attack Rell on her record and do it on a consistent theme ("out of touch" or whatever) and not with piecemeal complaints. If a Dem can develop a message with substance, but, just as importantly, one that can be summed up in a sentence, he/she will have a definite shot at Rell.

Just my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Incumbents enjoy too many advantages over challengers. It is impossible to provide balance, especially at a time when political parties here in Connecticut appear to be a spent force. We are becoming a one party state. When was the last time the Republican Party was able to supply a Dodd challenger with enough money to outweigh the incumbent senator's other advantages? The same question may be asked of Johnson, a Republican. Term limiting offices would help. It would also provide seasoned candidates for new positions: Dodd for governor? There is no other way to redress the balance.

CTObserver said...

The real advantage, other than in state-wide races, with incumbancy arises from the political control over re-districting. As long as incumbants can create their own "safe" districts, money will flow to them and not to challengers. Members of both parties have played at this game, and then become lazy when it comes to fundraising, by relying on the special interest communities (on the left and the right) to bring in the cash. The only time money doesn't flow overwhelmingly to the incumbant is when there is an actual competitive race. But to think that incumbants are going to give up their power over re-districting is even more fanciful than thinking they will give up their money advantage.

Nate said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nate said...

Is partisan redistricting really a problem anywhere in CT? Just by looking at the various maps to the right I don't see any gerrymanders snaking their way across the state. Anyway, I'm not sure that districts need to be competitive so much as fairly or logically drawn. To redraw lines in order to dilute the voting patterns of Democratic cities or the Republican "Gold Coast" of Fairfield seems counterintuitive.