The Pros and Cons of Running for Office Against an Incumbent

They say it’s hard to beat an incumbent and there’s plenty of data to back that up. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible if you’re challenging someone for their seat. You just need to be realistic about the endeavor.


I actually enjoy running races against incumbents, especially those who the insiders say are unbeatable.

There’s nothing more gratifying for candidate or a consultant than to beat an allegedly unbeatable candidate.

In fact, there’s no such thing as an unbeatable candidate.

Every one elected to office can be beat if the circumstances are right.

And in America today there is such a high level of dissatisfaction with elected officials, there are plenty of opportunities for a challenger to take an incumbent out in an election.

Now before we get too far down the throwing career politicians out of office road, let’s look at the three main advantages incumbents enjoy in an election.

Con #1: Name Identification

Incumbents generally have higher name ID than their challengers right out the gate.

Having campaigned for office already, the incumbent’s name has been out there.

Once elected, the press keeps the incumbent’s name out there – at least before the more informed voters of a community who follow the actions of government.

A savvy incumbent will also work their district the entire time they are in office, thus maintaining and sometimes growing their name ID.

Having a name top of mind with the voters does go a long way.

It’s not the only element in a campaign, but it is quite important.

If it wasn’t our streets wouldn’t be littered with campaign signs in the weeks leading up to an election.

Con #2: Established Base of Support

An incumbent became an incumbent because he or she won an election.

That election was won by not only having a winning message, but by building a solid base of support.

Unless the incumbent broke a major campaign promise, got caught in a scandal, or did something stupid in office, there’s no reason for those committed supporters to support a challenger.

That is as long as the incumbent has been staying in contact with their supporters and adding to their base.

That’s done by sending out mailers (sometimes at taxpayer expense when it’s permitted), being active on Facebook and Twitter, sending out regular email updates, attending plenty of community events, and hosting telephone town halls.

It’s going to be very hard to dislodge an incumbent if they have not done anything too boneheaded and if they’ve been working their supporters while in office.

Con #3: Fundraising Advantage

The people who whine and complain the most about money in politics are generally complaining about the fundraising advantages that belong to an incumbent.

It’s a legitimate complaint if you believe that all candidates should start a race completely equal.

But that’s not the real world.

In the real world where elections are won and lost, incumbents have a fundraising advantage.

This is true for two reasons.

First, an incumbent can spend their two, four, or six years in office raising money for their re-election.

In contrast, most challengers will only be raising money for a few months, maybe a year.

Second, donors prefer to give money to the candidates they feel are safe.

Incumbents have a history in office and a voting record.

Donors know what they are going to get from that person, even if they don’t always agree with the incumbent.

And since incumbents often win re-election, that helps make them a safe candidate to contribute to.

Now don’t get depressed if any of these advantages incumbents have seem insurmountable.

They’re not. 

You can work hard and increase your name identification, build a solid base of supporters, and raise enough money to be competitive in the election.

And the main reason you’ll often be able to do that when challenging an incumbent is because of the disadvantages they often carry with them into their re-election.

Here are the three main pros for candidates challenging an incumbent:

Pro #1: Record in Office

The best thing about running against an incumbent is the fact that they have a record from their time in office.

You should absolutely be running against that record.

There’s no reason for the voters to toss someone out of office unless they’ve done something they voters don’t like.

And every elected official has done at least one thing that their constituents disagree with.

Use such “bad votes” by the incumbent, their spending record, and even weird quotes they make in your campaign.

Contrast yourself with the incumbent, especially if there’s a public record of what they’ve done.

Make the incumbent’s record an issue of the campaign.

Force them to explain why they did what they did.

A candidate who spends their time explaining is quite often the one who’s losing.

Pro #2: Out of Touch

Sadly, many good people who run for office with high ideals and a desire to do good for their community lose their way after they win.

This does not typically happen over night. It’s a gradual process that happens over a term in office.

Instead of concerning themselves with what their constituents think in a matter, they listen almost exclusively to a small group of “insiders.”

These insiders are government staff members, prominent citizens, and other elected officials.

These individuals constantly validate the incumbent by telling them time and time again that they are doing a good job.

These cozy insider relationships are not corrupt, nor do they always result in a bad vote or a flip-flop on a campaign promise, though that can happen.

It most often shows up when an incumbent is unaware of a major issue that’s aggravating his or her constituents.

Rather than keeping their ear to the track, the incumbent has been listening to the insiders who have a much different agenda than the public,.

When this happens an incumbent has provided a challenger with a major opening with the voters.

Pro #3: Arrogance

The worst trait an elected official can have is arrogance.

It’s the one thing that voters tend to punish time and time again.

But it isn’t always the obvious arrogance that takes them down.

It’s usually something more subtle.

Incumbents allow themselves to become arrogant – or at least perceived as such – because of the fact that they are incumbents.

They know incumbents win most elections because they have solid advantages in name ID, supporters, and cash on hand.

They assume that’s enough to ensure a re-election victory.

Rather than working their butts off, they phone it in, then wonder why they lost on Election Night.

You see, the voters can tell if a candidate takes them for granted.

When they believe that’s the case, they find another candidate to cast their ballot for in the Election.

That’s the candidate that works the hardest campaigning and makes a real connection with voters.

Incumbents who don’t think they have to work as hard at re-election as they did the first time they won office are kidding themselves.

Their arrogance is leading them down the wrong path, a path that almost always leads to defeat.

Candidate Take-Aways

Don’t fear running against an incumbent.

Know from the get-go that they will have built in advantages over you.

That does not mean you are going to lose.

You need to work hard to beat an incumbent

If the person you’re challenging has become arrogant or out of touch while in office, you’re in a good spot.

But even if not, they have a record in office that you don’t have.

Exploit their record and make your case to the voters that it’s time for a change.

That’s always been the best way to beat an incumbent and it still is.