Quarterly Journal of Political Science > Vol 11 > Issue 3

What Explains Incumbent Success? Disentangling Selection on Party, Selection on Candidate Characteristics, and Office-Holding Benefits

Anthony Fowler, Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago, USA, anthony.fowler@uchicago.edu
Suggested Citation
Anthony Fowler (2016), "What Explains Incumbent Success? Disentangling Selection on Party, Selection on Candidate Characteristics, and Office-Holding Benefits", Quarterly Journal of Political Science: Vol. 11: No. 3, pp 313-338. http://dx.doi.org/10.1561/100.00015108

Published: 31 Oct 2016
© 2016 A. Fowler
Elections: Campaign finance,  Elections: Campaigns,  Elections: Electoral behavior,  Elections: Electoral institutions,  Elections: Voting behavior,  Elections: Voting theory,  Campaign finance,  Campaigns,  Elections,  Electoral behavior,  Electoral institutions,  Legislatures,  Political economy,  Voting behavior,  Voting theory,  Voting
Electionsrepresentationincumbency advantage

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In this article:
1. Related Literature
2. Intuition Behind the Empirical Strategy
3. Details on Empirical Strategy and Results for U.S. Senate
4. Discussion of the Assumptions Necessary for Estimating Officeholder Benefit
5. Concerns About Heterogeneity
6. Results Across Seven Different Electoral Settings
7. Variation Over Time
8. Variation Across Electoral Institutions
9. Conclusion


Incumbents significantly outperform challengers in American elections, but the implications of this phenomenon are ambiguous. Do otherwise unpopular incumbents exploit the political system to stay in power, or do open elections effectively select good candidates who will naturally win reelection? To address this question, I estimate the extent of incumbent success that can be attributed three factors — party match, characteristic selection, and officeholder benefit. Across numerous settings in the U.S., a significant portion of incumbent success can be attributed to the tendency of previous elections to select popular candidates that match the partisan preferences of voters. On average, party match explains about five-eighths of incumbent success and characteristic selection explains one-eighth, leaving only one quarter to be explained by the effects of holding office. These results also vary in meaningful ways across time periods, settings, and electoral institutions.


Online Appendix | 100.00015108_app.pdf

This is the article's accompanying appendix.

DOI: 10.1561/100.00015108_app

Replication Data | 100.00015108_supp.zip (ZIP).

This file contains the data that is required to replicate the data on your own system.

DOI: 10.1561/100.00015108_supp