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An incumbent is an official who already holds a political office.

A lot of ink has been spilled about whether the incumbent has a better chance of winning elections than a challenger does.

In presidential races, at least, the incumbent has historically had a strong advantage as only 11 presidents have run for re-election and lost. 

It’s only natural that the incumbent should have an edge over the competition, experts say.

Presidential historian Allan Lichtman told NPR:

Incumbents have the following advantages. Name recognition; national attention, fundraising and campaign bases; control over the instruments of government; successful campaign experience; a presumption of success; and voters’ inertia and risk-aversion.

The website Open Secrets has also pointed out that incumbent members of Congress have a strong advantage when it comes to being re-elected.

In the House of Representatives, re-election rates hover somewhere between 90 and 100 percent most of the time, only occasionally dipping down to around 80 percent.

In the Senate, rates are a little bit more volatile, with a few major dips during politically charged years (as in 1980, for example, when President Reagan swept into the White House).

Still, even accounting for those dips, the incumbent is overwhelmingly favored. They even do better in the polls.

Most pundits agree that when it comes to electing the president, voters are overwhelmingly making their decisions based on the economy.

It’s worth noting that the presidents who lost re-election in the 20th century almost all presided over struggling economies.

Herbert Hoover, of course, came into office in 1929, the year that the stock market tanked and ushered in the Great Depression.

Jimmy Carter presided over a period of rampant inflation (or “stagflation”) and soaring oil prices, which made it difficult for the government to continue most of its social spending programs. 

Last but not least, George H.W. Bush presided during a recession; inflation and oil prices were not a huge problem, but unemployment soared.

The president was also widely seen as oblivious to the country’s economic woes – and Bill Clinton, his Democratic challenger, never missed a chance to bring it up. 

Use of “Incumbent” in a sentence

  • Despite the incumbent mayor’s vigorous campaign efforts, the challenger managed to secure a surprising victory in the election.
  • As an incumbent, Senator Smith has the advantage of name recognition and a track record, but she also has to defend her previous decisions.
  • The incumbent president, enjoying high approval ratings, is widely expected to win a second term in office.