July 26, 2014 at 1:00 am

Why incumbents keep winning

Most Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing. Most Americans also vote to re-elect their congressman. What's wrong with this picture? (MLADEN ANTONOV / AFP/Getty Images)

Itís no news that Congress is unpopular.

In fact, at times it seems like the only real novelty on Capitol Hill would be a jump in its approval rating.

So hereís the interesting thing: nearly three-quarters of Americans want to throw out most members of Congress, including their own representative, yet the vast majority of incumbents will be returning to Capitol Hill in January.

In other words, Americans scorn Congress but keep re-electing its members. How could this be?

The first thing to remember is that members of Congress didnít get there by being lousy politicians. They know as well as you and I that Congress is unpopular, and theyíre masters at running against it ó appearing to be outsiders trying to get in, rather than insiders who produce the Congress they pretend to disdain.

Just as important, incumbents enjoy an overwhelming advantage in elections. They have a large staff whose jobs focus on helping constituents. Theyíre paid a good salary, so they donít have to worry about supporting their families while they campaign. They get to spend their terms effectively campaigning year-round, not just at election time, and they are able to saturate their state or district with mass mailings.

Incumbents get the honored place in the parade, the prime speaking position, the upper hand when it comes to raising money; challengers have to fight for visibility and money. In fact, challengers are at a disadvantage at almost every point in a campaign. From building name recognition to arranging meetings to building credibility with editorial boards, donors, and opinion leaders, theyíre trudging uphill.

But thereís another reason incumbents keep getting re-elected thatís also worth considering: voters ó thatís you and me. Most Americans donít vote, and those who do often cast their ballots for narrow or unusual reasons. They like the way they got treated by the incumbentís staff, or they shook his or her hand at a county fair, or they like his or her stand on a particular social or economic issue. Whatever the case, they donít look at an incumbentís entire record: votes on a cross-section of vital issues; willingness to work with members of different ideologies and backgrounds; ability to explain Washington back home and represent home in Washington; skill at forging consensus on policy challenges.

Itís really no mystery that incumbent members get re-elected. Their advantages are baked into the system.

Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.