The Incumbent Advantage

Ousting the GOP majority is harder than it looks.

As congressional campaigns enter the post-Labor Day homestretch, there is widespread agreement that the 2006 elections pose the greatest threat to the Republican House majority since it came to power in 1994.

Many political strategists and members of Congress see a Democratic landslide in the making; even Republicans concede that the party is likely to suffer a net loss of seats in November. Almost no one, not even at the National Republican Congressional Committee, can imagine a scenario in which Republicans actually gain seats.

Yet for all the talk of an impending tidal wave, not nearly enough attention has been paid to the power of incumbency-and the role it could play in safeguarding the GOP majority.

Everyone who follows politics understands the myriad advantages that incumbency confers. After all, it's the driving force behind the 95 percent House reelection rate since 1980. Yet few this year have taken full measure of those advantages or considered how the power of incumbency has intensified in the past decade alone. Incumbency isn't just an advantage anymore. It's a machine unto itself.

Traditionally, the power of incumbency has been rooted in the limitless fund-raising and pork barreling opportunities, the free media attention and the name recognition that attaches to members of Congress.

All those advantages still apply, only today they are amplified by recent advances in information technology. Sophisticated mapping software now enables incumbents to cherry-pick their constituents during redistricting. Congressional Web sites offer voters a wealth of information about a member's biography and legislative accomplishments, supplemented by weekly e-mails, podcasts, streaming video, electronic town halls and blogs. Can't read English? Not a problem. A few congressional Web sites offer a Spanish version.

Technology also has revolutionized congressional mail operations. Constituent mail has a quicker turnaround than ever before, largely because so many offices are equipped with software that enables them to track and manage incoming and outgoing communications. This, in turn, helps increase the volume of outgoing correspondence and, most important, facilitates the creation of databases filled with tens of thousands of e-mail addresses-along with the issues of interest to those individuals. In short, members of Congress know more about the people they represent, the things they care about and how to reach them than at any time in the history of the institution.

All this contributes to the high reelection rate of incumbents, but doesn't produce nearly as many votes as congressional casework. Every year, thousands of constituents reach out to their representatives, mainly for assistance in dealing with federal agencies, but also for help in almost any kind of nettlesome situation.

According to one office's constituent service guide, "A congressional office is essentially the customer service department for the federal government." As such, every office includes staffers whose sole job is to intercede with federal agencies on behalf of constituents on an impossibly wide variety of grievances, benefits claims, questions or requests. Thanks to case management software, this critical office work is conducted more efficiently than ever.

Consider one of the most common cases-the frightened retiree whose Social Security check has not arrived. Once an office resolves the crisis and the check is cut, that grateful retiree becomes a rock-solid vote who, quite likely, convinces his or her family to do the same. Even if only half of those who contact Congress in a typical year receive a satisfactory resolution to their problem, in just a few years' time, you are still talking about thousands and thousands of loyal voters.

Will all this be enough to hold back a Democratic tidal wave? It's impossible to know, but the GOP majority is better equipped to withstand one than any other congressional majority in history.

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