The relevant question here is why incumbent officials continue to get reelected even after they have been accused of potential crimes, unethical behavior or immoral behavior? The answer includes, but is not limited to, candidate centered campaigns, complacency with corrupt officials, and the ability of entrenched elected officials to scare off the strongest and best challengers from even entering the race.
First, campaigns have become candidate centered, instead of issues centered. Voters place too much emphasis on whether they like a candidate, or how they feel about a candidate. They like the way they look, the way they talk or their family. (Shawn,Bohan,McCaferty,Harris, 1986) They might know the candidate’s stand on one or two key issues but that’s all. They vote for the guy or gal they like and feel comfortable with, rather than the candidate who can do the best job in the office. (Mann, Wolfinger, 1980) Once you develop that rapport or comfort level with ‘your’ elected official, it becomes easier to overlook all but the most egregious transgressions. (Cox, Katz, 1996)
This rapport or comfort level that voters develop with incumbent officials also has an indirect affect. Cox and Katz argue in their paper entitled Why did the Incumbency Advantage in the House Elections Grow? that the inherent benefits of being an incumbent official tends to scare off the strongest and best challengers. The strongest challengers understand that they have their best shot at being elected if they are running against another challenger, rather than an incumbent. The playing field is level. Neither challenger has a record of legislative achievement, neither has a paid staff and neither has the organization that has lots of IOUs they accumulated by performing services for voters. Both are starting with clean slates.
Given the option of challenging an entrenched incumbent, or either waiting until that office becomes vacant or looking at a different elective office, the strong challengers will back out of a contest with the incumbent. (Wagner, Prier, 2009)
Second, gerrymandering has created an overwhelming large number of seats that are safe for one party or the other. Research has shown that for all but the most serious transgressions, an incumbent will lose between 6 – 10% of the voters. While that might seem like a lot to lose, most politicians have a large enough safety factor that they can afford to lose 6 – 10% of the voters. (Welch, Hibbing, 1997)
Third, the nature of the charges against an incumbent plays a large role. Susan Welch and John Hibbing discuss this at length in their article The Effects of Charges of Corruption on Voting Behavior in Congressional Elections 1982 – 1990. I talked earlier about how voters get attached to an incumbent because they get to know them during their term of office and tend to support them as ‘their’ representative. When a scandal erupts, a voter tends to weigh what their personal knowledge and feelings are about the candidate against the charges.
When a scandal involves a campaign violation, for example, voters who favor the candidate tend to say something like “Well everyone violates the campaign regulations. That’s just how it is”. For a candidate accused of a campaign violation to lose more than the 6-10% we discussed, it would have to be egregious. The candidate would have to be caught red-handed changing a vote count, or physically intimidating potential voters from casting a ballot. Lesser violations like accepting more than the legal limits of contributions from one source, just don’t excite people.
It’s the same for accusations of abuse of official privileges. If an incumbent is accused of exceeding his franking privileges, billing the government for personal travel or helping a large contributor to win a large contract, it gets a yawn. In the minds of voters who like that candidate, they argue that everyone does it. It’s just not a big deal.
Having affairs with staffers, drug or alcohol dependency, accepting bribes or closet homosexuality are all charges that have been leveled against incumbents where the incumbents weathered the accusations.
Again, the supporters of an incumbent facing a charge of a moral or ethical breech weigh the charge against their personal knowledge and feelings about the official. Even those who might not be a strong supporter of an incumbent tend to blow off the charges with an “Everyone is Doing It” attitude. For morals or ethics charges to cause an incumbent to lose an election, they have to be extremely egregious, like being involved in child pornography or dog fighting. (Welch, Hibbing, 1997).
In summary, it’s hard to defeat an incumbent, even those that are crooks. Voters have shown themselves to be very forgiving of bad behavior and the inherent power of incumbency can be very intimidating.
Cox, G., & Katz, J. (1996, January 1). Why Did the Incumbency Advantage in U.S. House Elections Grow? Retrieved November 2, 2014, from http://authors.library.caltech.edu/44326/
Welch, S., & Hibbing, J. (1997, February 1). The Effects of Charges of Corruption on Voting Behavior in Congressional Elections 1982-1990. Retrieved November 2, 2014, from http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2998224?uid=3739600&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21105101700223
Mann, T., & Wolfinger, R. (1980, September 1). Candidates and Parties in Congressional Elections. Retrieved November 2, 2014, from http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1958145?uid=3739600&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21105101700223
Rosenberg, Shawn, Lisa Bohan, Patrick McCafferty, and Kevin Harris. "The Image and the Vote: The Effect of Candidate Presenttion on Voter Preference." American Journal of Political Science. January 1, 1986. Accessed November 2, 2014.
Wagner, Kevin, and Eric Prier. "Running Unopposed: Assessing the Impact of Term Limits on Competition in Florida and Maine." Journal of Politics and Policy. January 1, 2009.