What is an Incumbent?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

In politics, an incumbent is someone who holds a political office, position, or title. Usually, the term only comes up during elections, when an incumbent may be challenged for a position by another politician. This word comes from a Latin root meaning “to lie down,” which came to mean “to possess.” This term is also used in business, to describe a company with major clout in an industry, or an individual who is primarily responsible for the operations of a company.

On a ballot, the incumbent is often identified with “incumbent” beside his or her name.
On a ballot, the incumbent is often identified with “incumbent” beside his or her name.

Incumbents sometimes have an advantage in elections. Constituents often prefer to vote for incumbents because they know that the incumbent has experience in the position, and if he or she has been doing a good job, constituents might prefer to simply keep the incumbent in place. Incumbents also have an extensive network of connections and supporters which they can exploit during an election to increase their chances of being re-elected. They can also draw upon concrete examples of the beneficial work they did while in office to persuade voters to re-elect them.

Constituents often prefer to vote for incumbents because they know that the incumbent has experience in the position.
Constituents often prefer to vote for incumbents because they know that the incumbent has experience in the position.

However, an incumbent may also be forced to cope with backlash. If things did not go well during the previous term, whether or not it was the incumbent's fault, voters may react by voting the incumbent out of office. Sometimes, an anti-incumbency movement will rise up in a community, with activists organizing a concerted effort to remove as many incumbents from office as possible, with the goal of radically changing the government at the local, state, or national level.

If things did not go well during the previous term, voters may react by voting the incumbent out of office.
If things did not go well during the previous term, voters may react by voting the incumbent out of office.

Challengers to a political seat often harness this attitude, making up for lack of political connections and experience with a platform focused heavily on political change. Sometimes, a political party will also provide support to such candidates, as in the Democratic Party's Red to Blue Program in the United States, which offers assistance to Democrats attempting to shake up traditionally Republican districts.

Incumbents sometimes have an advantage in elections.
Incumbents sometimes have an advantage in elections.

On a ballot, the incumbent is often identified with “incumbent” beside his or her name, along with party affiliation. For people who have difficulty keeping track of political officials, this can be extremely useful, as it allows them to decide whether they want to vote to maintain the status quo, or whether they want to try someone new. However, it's still a good idea to research the challengers, as their policies might be even worse than those of the incumbent, thereby making the situation even worse.

Incumbent politicians may outline concrete examples of their previous work to persuade voters to re-elect them.
Incumbent politicians may outline concrete examples of their previous work to persuade voters to re-elect them.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments

summing

So, just to confirm, Barack Obama will be the incumbent in the upcoming presidential election?

jonrss

There is a strong and growing anti incumbent sentiment in the country right now. I heard a commentator on the radio today saying that the 2012 election could be a rare example of both parties facing big declines in incumbent candidates. It is usually the case that only one party, usually the majority party, suffers big losses. But in a climate where satisfaction with congress is at a deep low, there is little respect for experienced politicians of any kind. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

icecream17

@Sunny27 - I agree with you and hope that the economy does turn around for everyone’s sake. I wanted to add that I do see how it is difficult for an unknown candidate to receive the same press as an incumbent because the incumbent just has a press conference and makes national news while an unknown candidate has to hope that he will receive enough media coverage to become more familiar to the public.

People tend to give more attention and money to candidates that are well known which makes it easier for the incumbent to launch an aggressive reelection campaign that might leave the other candidates in the dust.

Sunny27

@Sunshine31 - Clearly in the 1980 election there was an anti-incumbent feeling that hurt Jimmy Carter and some wonder if we will have a repeat of the results in the 2012 election.

Who knows because despite people’s growing dissatisfaction with the economy, Obama still has a healthy approval rating so only time will tell. If the economy turns around he will probably get reelected, but if it continues to flounder we may have a new president. A lot can happen in a year so we will have to wait and see.

I know that in the 1992 Presidential election, there was a point in the campaign that the incumbent, President George H. Walker Bush had an approval rating of over 80%, yet he was not reelected.

Instead President Clinton who at the time was seen as a dark horse candidate not only won the Democratic nomination but won the presidency and was reelected for a second term.

I think that if an incumbent develops some popularity, they should not take it for granted because the presidential election of 1992 proves what happens when the incumbent takes his eyes off the ball.

sunshine31

@GreenWeaver - I agree with you that the incumbent has an advantage, but it can also be a curse to be an incumbent because if times are tough the incumbent will get blamed for everything and people will be looking for a fresh face.

For example, during the presidential election of 1980, the country was suffering from stagflation with double digit inflation and interest rates. People were truly miserable and the top tax rate was 70%.

On top of that the country was suffering from a foreign policy crisis because Iran held Americans hostage for well over a year which also made people feel helpless. As a result of all of these negative events the incumbent Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in a landslide.

In fact, the only state that Jimmy Carter carried was his home state of Georgia. So it really does depend how the incumbent is doing because it is not an automatic win for the incumbent.

GreenWeaver

I that the incumbent reelection rate is usually pretty high because the incumbent has the advantage of not only having name recognition but a lot money raised through aggressive fundraising efforts.

On top of that, if the incumbent did a fairly good job they are almost certain to get reelected. This is why it is so difficult to run against an incumbent and why you see members of the House of Representatives and Senate get reelected to so many terms that it looks like they served for a lifetime.

There were some people that were even talking about having term limits for members of congress so that you do not have career politicians. Some people think that when you spend so much time in a position like this you tend to lose your original motivation of why you went into politics which is why these people want to see more turnover in congress.

The last time I checked the approval rating for congressional members was only 9%. I don’t think that it ever has been that low so maybe we do need some fresh faces.

Post your comments
Login:
Forgot password?
Register: