Systemic Consequences of Incumbency Advantage in the U.S. House


King, Gary, and Andrew Gelman. 1991. Systemic Consequences of Incumbency Advantage in the U.S. House. American Journal of Political Science 35: 110–138. Copy at
Article2.2 MB


The dramatic increase in the electoral advantage of incumbency has sparked widespread interest among congressional researchers over the last 15 years. Although many scholars have studied the advantages of incumbency for incumbents, few have analyzed its effects on the underlying electoral system. We examine the influence of the incumbency advantage on two features of the electoral system in the U.S. House elections: electoral responsiveness and partisan bias. Using a district-level seats-votes model of House elections, we are able to distinguish systematic changes from unique, election-specific variations. Our results confirm the significant drop in responsiveness, and even steeper decline outside the South, over the past 40 years. Contrary to expectations, we find that increased incumbency advantage explains less than a third of this trend, indicating that some other unknown factor is responsible. Moreover, our analysis also reveals another dramatic pattern, largely overlooked in the congressional literature: in the 1940’s and 1950’s the electoral system was severely biased in favor of the Republican party. The system shifted incrementally from this severe Republican bias over the next several decades to a moderate Democratic bias by the mid-1980’s. Interestingly, changes in incumbency advantage explain virtually all of this trend in partisan bias since the 1940’s. By removing incumbency advantage and the existing configuration of incumbents and challengers analytically, our analysis reveals an underlying electoral system that remains consistently biased in favor of the Republican party. Thus, our results indicate that incumbency advantage affects the underlying electoral system, but contrary to conventional wisdom, this changes the trend in partisan bias more than electoral responsiveness.