Friday, November 1, 2013

We Hate Incumbents - Except Our Own

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on November 1, 2013
By Bill Gouveia


            Opinion polls across the country clearly show voters are not happy with incumbent members of Congress.  They would like to see them voted out of office.


            Well, not so fast.  They don’t like incumbents other than those who represent them personally.  Those particular congressmen they want to keep in office.  It is primarily other people’s incumbents they have a real problem with in Washington.


            That’s not to say no veteran lawmakers are in serious trouble with their local constituency.  There are certainly many battleground elections that will come up in 2014, especially in the primaries where both conservatives and liberals will try to outflank each other to either the extreme right or left.  It is much easier to upset a sitting member of Congress in the primary than in the general election because there are simply less voters.


            But if incumbents are so disliked and so heavily blamed for the many problems facing this nation today, why are they not replaced more often?  Why do voters send the same officials back to Washington year after year?


            Well, there are many reasons.  Chief among them may be the old adage about “the devil you know” being safer than the one you don’t. 


Predictability is a trait not discussed much by those who analyze elections, but it weighs mightily in the minds of campaign experts when they try to influence them.  If you always know where an official stands on most issues, you don’t have to put a lot of effort into swaying them to your side.  But true mavericks – otherwise known as those who actually vote their consciences rather than their party – require more attention and work to earn their support.


            It is also true that incumbents have a built-in advantage with the local political establishment.  Governors, mayors, city councilors, and selectmen all count on their local congressperson to keep federal funds flowing and help them solve their problems.  They invest in relationships with the congressional staff as well as the elected official.  They are loathe to give that up and start all over, afraid they might lose whatever “edge” they had.  They also have the advantage of their particular political party.


            Additionally, Congressmen and Congresswomen love to come home to the district and blame everything on everyone else in Washington.  You know, those “other people” who make the job of our poor, beleaguered elected heroes so difficult.  We are constantly reminded how lucky we all are to have the independent, strong-minded local person to fight our battles for us in that crazy capital city.


            Some say it is amazing that in this internet age, with all the sources of informational available to people, that incumbents can continue to defend their often indefensible records.  But that itself highlights a common misperception quite prevalent today.


            Just because the public has a vastly increased number of “informational opportunities” does not mean they are taking advantage of them.  The fact there are more places to go for information (both good and bad) does not mean the public is therefore more informed on the issues of the day.


            You can lead a voter to the issues, but you can’t make them vote.  People love to complain about the lack of general progress in Washington and in their own states, but that does not mean they are looking to truly understand how to improve their political lot in life.


            In other words – just because you give the average voter more access to information does not mean they will use it for purposes other than bolstering their already-formed political positions.  Information is indeed power, but power is exercised for purposes both good and bad regularly. 


            Contrary to what some people may believe, it is still generally a good thing to be an incumbent.  Fundraising is easier, and using the perks of office is always a good way to increase your re-election chances.


            The vast majority of those in Congress are incumbents.  Those newcomers who get elected in 2014 will be incumbents by 2016.  And unfortunately, Congress changes those who enter it much more than those who enter it change Congress.


            All politics are local, as former Speaker Tip O’Neill so eloquently said.  And everybody hates incumbents – except those who benefit by their incumbency.


Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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