Incumbent Advantage

A story in my local newspaper (I live in Tallahassee, Florida) discusses the priorities of the next Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, Chris Sprowls. One interesting thing about this story is that Representative Sprowls will not become Speaker of the House until after the 2020 election, more than a year away, after he has been reelected to his House seat.

The article confidently refers to him as the next Speaker even though (1) he has to win reelection, and (2) enough Republicans must win reelection in the 2020 election for the party to retain its majority in the House. I repeat: the election is more than a year away!

How can Representative Sprowls be so confident that he will be reelected? How can fellow House Republicans be so confident they will retain a majority of the seats in the House? How can the newspaper be so confident that those two things will happen?

Answer: Incumbents almost always win.

The notion that somehow voters have the ability to replace elected officials by voting them out of office is a sham when incumbents win almost all the time. Could it really be the case that incumbents are (almost) always a better choice than the challengers they face?

One response to this incumbent advantage is to have term limits for legislators, and Florida is one of 15 states that have them. That’s another reason that Representative Sprowls has been designated as the next Speaker. The current Speaker, Jose Olivia, will be term-limited out of office.

I’ve heard critics of term limits say that (1) if we don’t like our elected officials, we can vote them out, and (2) that term limits require that well-qualified and capable legislators will be replaced by those with little experience, who are ineffective because they don’t understand how legislative institutions work.

The answer to (1) is that this is wrong, because of the strong advantage of incumbency, and the answer to (2) is that the job isn’t that difficult to learn. The president of the United States is term limited, and 36 states have term limits for their governors. Does it really require more experience to be a legislator than a governor, or president of the United States?

The advantage of incumbency is so great that in this case Representative Sprowls, the Republicans in the Florida legislature, and my hometown newspaper do not even question that he will be the next Speaker, even though he must win reelection more than a year from now for that to happen.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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