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Systemic Consequences of Incumbency Advantage in U.S. House Elections

Gary King and Andrew Gelman
American Journal of Political Science
Vol. 35, No. 1 (Feb., 1991), pp. 110-138
DOI: 10.2307/2111440
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2111440
Page Count: 29
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Systemic Consequences of Incumbency Advantage in U.S. House Elections
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Abstract

The dramatic increase in the electoral advantage of incumbency has sparked widespread interest among congressional researchers over the last 15 years. Although many scholars have studied the advantages of incumbency for incumbents, few have analyzed its effects on the underlying electoral system. We examine the influence of the incumbency advantage on two features of the electoral system in U.S. House elections: electoral responsiveness and partisan bias. Using a district-level seats-votes model of House elections, we are able to distinguish systemic changes from unique, election-specific variations. Our results confirm the significant drop in responsiveness, and an even steeper decline outside the South, over the past 40 years. Contrary to expectations, we find that increased incumbency advantage explains less than a third of this trend, indicating that some other unknown factor is responsible. Moreover, our analysis also reveals another dramatic pattern, largely overlooked in the congressional literature: in the 1940s and 1950s the electoral system was severely biased in favor of the Republican party. The system shifted incrementally from this severe Republican bias over the next several decades to a moderate Democratic bias by the mid-1980s. Interestingly, changes in incumbency advantage explain virtually all of this trend in partisan bias since the 1940s. By removing incumbency advantage and the existing configuration of incumbents and challengers analytically, our analysis reveals an underlying electoral system that remains consistently biased in favor of the Republican party. Thus, our results indicate that incumbency advantage affects the underlying electoral system, but contrary to the conventional wisdom, this changes the trend in partisan bias more than electoral responsiveness.

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