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Don't Cry for Incumbents

THE news for members of Congress seeking reelection this year seems worse every day. In primary elections in the past two months in diverse places such as the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Connecticut, and Washington incumbents or candidates associated with incumbent administrations have withdrawn or been defeated. A Tampa, Fla. man has started an anti-incumbent organization, THRO (Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out). With hundreds of donations, he has placed advertisements in major newspapers across the country urging people to vote against all incumbents.

Polls also indicate voters are getting surly. A Wirthlin Group poll found only 25 percent of the public felt the country was heading in the right direction. These numbers are similar to those registered in the waning days of the Carter presidency, when voters toppled an incumbent president and turned control of the Senate over to the Republicans for the first time in 26 years.

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Ten years later, national polls suggest the ire of voters again is being directed at Congress. In a New York Times/CBS News poll, only 27 percent of those surveyed approved of the job Congress was doing, compared with 42 percent in January. Seventy-one percent felt Congress serves special interests more than the people they represent. This should not be good news for members of Congress in an election year.

But members of Congress needn't begin packing their bags; this anti-incumbent drive will largely fail.

Yes, the incumbent-return rate likely will fall below the 1988 figures: 98 percent for House members, 95 percent for Senate members. The chances are slim, however, that it will fall below 90-95 percent, which has been the average rate for the past four decades. Even in that anti-incumbent year of 1980, the reelection rate for members of the House was still 91 percent. It is unlikely the figure will drop that low this year.

The strength of incumbents rests in their high name recognition, the general feelings of goodwill toward them in their districts, and their relative ease in raising money. Incumbents generally enjoy wide name recognition in their districts due to their success in previous campaigns and local news coverage of their activities. Challengers, on the other hand, remain invisible to the vast majority of voters.

Incumbents utilize the resources of office to heighten their visibility: computer-generated direct mail, franked newsletters, toll-free phones, and press releases. All emphasize the member's work on behalf of the local constituency. Few challengers possess all these resources, and none at taxpayer expense.

Moreover, what lawmakers are telling voters is not information that would help oust them. What is missing from the franked mailings, toll-free numbers, and press releases is discussion of the member's vote on controversial issues. Constituents remain ignorant of votes by their own member of Congress that they may disagree with. For example, in a recent CBS News poll, nearly eight out of 10 respondents did not know how their member of Congress had voted on the recent deficit-reduction plan.

Since Congress has yet to pass a campaign-finance reform bill, this year's incumbents still are accumulating large campaign treasuries stocked with money provided by political-action committees. In 1988, 80 percent of incumbent House members outspend their challengers by at least 3 to 1. Federal Election Commission campaign finance reports reveal that this year's challengers are no better off.

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Voters distinguish between the Congress in general and their own member. Even with the erosion of public confidence in Congress as a body, individual members of Congress escape much of the blame in their own districts. In the New York Times/CBS poll, 67 percent of the public felt it was time to give new people a chance to serve in Congress. But when the question moved to their particular representative, only 40 percent wanted to give a new person a chance. Only 75 of the 405 House incumbents face a real contest this year.

Now, when a weak challenger loses, but does surprisingly well, as may happen this year, a potentially strong challenger such as a popular state or local official often enters the race in the next electoral cycle. If the factors resulting in the weak challenger's strong showing persist, the next challenger may be able to ride them to actual victory two years later.

So a discontented electorate must remain that way for at least two electoral cycles in order for strong challengers to risk their careers and subsequently win. Such double electoral cycles have occurred; the most recent in 1978 and 1980. In those two cycles, a group of Republican challengers emerged after an unexpectedly bad Democratic year in 1978 to beat Democratic incumbents in 1980. But such double cycles have not been frequent.

Despite the angry public mood, those who take their seats in January for the 102nd Congress will look very much like those who were seated for the 101st.

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