Congressional Elections in the United States

From the lecture series: Understanding the US Government

By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University

Elections play an important role in a democracy. How often are these elections conducted? How much do they cost? And, do some candidates have advantages over others in getting votes? Learn all this and more about the congressional elections in the United States.

Four women are shown casting ballots with US flag in the background.
There are many factors that influence who the voters choose in the elections. (Image: vesperstock/Shutterstock)

Elections for House of Representatives

As mandated by the Constitution, there is an election every two years, and, in principle, all 435 seats in the House are up for grabs. However, while every seat is contestable, in practice, most members of the House seek re-election and most of those seeking re-election win. In a typical election, only 40 to 60 House seats are really up for grabs.

The high rate of winning a re-election bid is partly due to the fact that many members of the Congress run in districts where there is no strong opposition party candidate competing for the seat. However, some of these seats that are essentially non-competitive in the general election may have been competitive at the primary election stage.

The primary stage is the proving ground by which each party, Republicans and Democrats, select a candidate to run in the general election. Usually, the primary is organised a few months before the general election, but the rules and procedures vary from state to state.

Learn more about the major types of government.

Elections for Senate

In the 100-seat Senate, things are a bit different. As stipulated by the Constitution, a senator’s term of office is six years, with Senate seats separated into three staggered classes so that each class of about 34 seats is up for re-election in the same year. That means only about one-third of the Senate is contested in any given congressional election. This gets referred to as a cycle.

Senators have only been directly elected by the people since the adoption of the 17th Amendment in 1913; before then, senators were selected by state legislatures.

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Midterm Elections

When the regular biennial congressional election falls near the midpoint of a president’s four-year term of office, it is called a midterm election.

For a House seat, a midterm election takes place every four years; for a Senate seat, a midterm election takes place every 12 years.

Money Spent on Congressional Elections

Two puzzle pieces are shown joined together, with 'politics' written on one and 'money' written on the other.
In the midterm congressional election of 2018, candidates spent a total of $5.7 billion. (Image: David Carillet/Shutterstock)

It costs a lot of money to win a congressional seat. On average, a winning House candidate will spend around $1.5 million and a winning Senate candidate will spend a bit more than $10 million.

Congressional elections have been getting more and more expensive over the years. If we look back to 1998, the total amount of money that all congressional candidates spent in the midterm congressional election was about $1.6 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in federal elections. But 20 years later, in the midterm congressional election of 2018, candidates spent a total of $5.7 billion.

Even if we control for inflation, this represents a 125% increase in the amount of money spent on congressional elections. Some of the increased cost is because of partisan polarization, which increases the intensity of campaigning.

Learn more about the framework of US Federalism.

Incumbency Advantage

Between the middle of the 1950s and about 2016, congressional scholars observed what they called an “incumbency advantage” associated with congressional candidates.

An incumbent is a candidate who already holds the office to which they seek re-election. Most congressional elections involve an incumbent candidate and a challenger candidate.

Congressional scholars calculated that from about 1950 until 1980, congressional incumbents enjoyed an increasing electoral advantage that was due only to their status as an incumbent.

Benefits of Being an Incumbent

Incumbents have an easier time raising money than challenger candidates and, typically, an incumbent does not need to spend as much money to win as a challenger does.

Incumbents also have built-in name recognition, a record on which to run, and the support of their party, usually. More often than not, when voters do not know much about a candidate, they will stick with the status quo. That means vote for the incumbent.

In other words, historically, incumbents were re-elected at higher rates than non-incumbents. This has always been true.

By isolating the effects of party loyalty, campaign finance, and other factors that may influence the outcome of an election, scholars showed that just the very characteristic of being an incumbent has provided an electoral advantage.

Learn more about the functioning of Congress.

Rise and Fall of Incumbency Advantage

The incumbency advantage peaked in the 1980s when congressional incumbents were earning 10 to 12 percentage points, on average, simply for being the incumbent in the race.

Since then, scholars have observed that the incumbency advantage has been declining.

In the 2018 midterm election, one expert in congressional elections, Professor Gary Jacobson from the University of California, San Diego, estimated that congressional candidates gained little to no additional vote advantage from incumbency alone.

Increase in Partisan Loyalty

Most incumbents still won in 2018 midterm elections, but they won because of increased partisan loyalty, not because of incumbency.

Hand casting ballot with party icons of Democrats and Republicans placed on the wooden box and the US flag in the background.
Most voters support the congressional candidate who shares their party label. (Image: Peeradach R/Shutterstock)

In other words, Democrats voted for Democrats, Republicans votes for Republicans, and incumbents benefited from partisan voting, but there was effectively no electoral benefit for being an incumbent.

In the end, most voters will support the congressional candidate who shares their party label. All the characteristics of incumbency are still true to some degree, but in modern times, none of those features of congressional elections are more important than party labels.

We are living in a period of extreme attachment to partisanship.

Common Questions about Congressional Elections in the United States

Q: In the United States, how often do midterm elections take place in the House and the Senate?

For a House seat, a midterm election takes place every four years; for a Senate seat, a midterm election takes place every 12 years.

Q: Who is an incumbent?

An incumbent is a candidate who already holds the office to which they seek re-election. Most congressional elections involve an incumbent candidate and a challenger candidate.

Q: What are some of the benefits that incumbents have?

Incumbents have an easier time raising money than challenger candidates. They also have built-in name recognition, a record on which to run, and the support of their party, usually.

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