INCUMBENTS….When I was taking political science classes in the late 70s, the reelection rate for incumbents in the House of Representatives was upwards of 90%. This was seen as a worrying thing. Flash forward to today and most people would be delighted if the incumbent reelection rate were that low. In recent elections it’s hovered around 98%. There are several reasons for this:
Gerrymandering has always been with us, but it’s become easier and more precise in recent years. In the past, only a political genius could perform genuinely high-quality gerrymandering. Today it’s available to anyone with a PC and the right software.
Conservatives and liberals have been showing an increasing tendency to self-segregate. That is, liberals tend to move to liberal places and conservatives tend to move to conservative places. This has an obvious self-gerrymandering effect, but also has the less obvious effect of making people more partisan. When you spend time only with people you agree with, your views tend to become more extreme. This is good for incumbents since extreme voters are less likely to defect to the opposition.
In a weird sort of vicious circle, Congress passes deliberately complex laws and then spends vast amounts of money on constituent services to help voters who are having trouble with federal bureaucracy. Because of this, constituent service has skyrocketed in the past few decades, and the beneficiaries of this service tend to vote for the people who helped them regardless of party affiliation or ideology.
Money is far more concentrated. Incumbents outspend challengers by a ratio of 5:1 or more these days, and this has become increasingly important as campaigns have become increasingly dependent on media buys.
Contrary to popular wisdom, there are fewer true independents now than in the past.
What brings this up? A new article, “The Redistricting Myth,” published in the Democratic Strategist by Jonathan Krasno. He makes the salutary point that gerrymandering is not really the main reason that incuments are so safe today, arguing instead that “the best explanation is deceivingly simple: lack of effort.” Krasno points out that in the 2004 presidential race there were plenty of swing districts (those won by less than 10 percentage points), and suggests that these seats could all be up for grabs if the Democratic Party were willing to fund serious challenges in them instead of concentrating the bulk of its money in a mere dozen races.
Do I believe this? Only partly. There are two big problems with Krasno’s theory. First, there are several trends that have converged to make incumbents so safe today, and money is only one of them. Second, money isn’t concentrated just for the hell of it. There’s a limited amount to go around, and there’s a pretty good case to be made that modest funding in lots of races simply doesn’t work. If you’re going to beat an incumbent, you need lots of money.
That said, though, I think Krasno has a point here: “It is tempting to conclude that parties are merely responding to political reality. That is certainly true, but it is also true that parties and other big players help create that reality.” This isn’t an excuse to fund every challenger out there, but Krasno is right that lack of funding helps to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. It would probably be a good idea to spread the wealth around this year a little more than usual.