Did you know that political incumbents, if they decide to run for re-election, actually win local campaigns in the vast majority of instances? Most political newcomers and casual observers might not realize how powerful incumbency is, but there are several reasons why it’s so difficult to run a winning political campaign and beat an incumbent candidate in a local election.
That’s not to say that it isn’t possible to win a campaign against an incumbent–it is, obviously, and it happens frequently in local, state and national elections. An incumbent’s electability and popularity often have a lot to do with the political climate, local economy, and other factors that aren’t in anyone’s control. The current office holder, however, usually starts any campaign with a leg up in name recognition, fund raising and favorability . . . as long as they haven’t run into a scandal or performed their job horribly.
So, why is it that an incumbent politician is the candidate most likely to win most local elections? There are several important reasons, the first of which is their ability to raise large amounts of campaign money from a large pool of potential donors. The first time you run for office, it’s usually difficult to get people to donate to your campaign, since you haven’t yet proven that you can win.
An incumbent candidate, though, has already showed supporters that he can win an election, and that he is a good investment. He has likely made many new contacts over the course of his term in office, and all of them are potential contributors. And if he has formed alliances with other politicians and officeholders in his own party, he will also have access to other lists of potential donors, invitations to events that can lead to new fundraising opportunities, and compelling endorsements.
Another reason why incumbents are more likely to win a local election is name recognition. People like to vote for the name they know, and any politician who has held office for a while and been on the ballot in the past is a known entity. Building candidate name recognition is a vital part of any political campaign, and incumbents already have a huge head start against lesser-known opponents.
Does that mean that a well-financed incumbent with a high approval rating and high name recognition is unbeatable? Well, no, it doesn’t. Anything is possible, and there are examples of popular political incumbents who lost their attempts at re-election because of unforeseen developments during campaign season.
Popular incumbents could get embroiled in unexpected scandals or even pass away on the campaign trail. But a word to the wise: if your whole local election strategy consists of hoping that your opponent gets arrested or dies, then you should probably keep your powder dry for another political campaign in the future.