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.
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.
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.
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.
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.