House Incumbents Use Large Campaign Funds To Deter Challengers

July 12, 1996

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- U.S. House members prevent high-quality challengers from opposing them in elections by raising large campaign war chests, a new study has shown.

In general, each $100,000 that an incumbent collects decreases by 16 percent the chance that a high-quality challenger will enter the race.

While the results won't surprise political practitioners, this is the first time an academic study has shown that an incumbent's fundraising can discourage challengers, said Janet Box-Steffensmeier, author of the study and an assistant professor of political science at Ohio State University.

"These results provide evidence of how incumbents can insulate themselves from competitive elections by raising a huge campaign war chest," said Box-Steffensmeier. "This bolsters the argument for campaign finance reform."

The study appears in the current issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Box-Steffensmeier said previous studies had found that the amount of money incumbents raised did not affect whether challengers entered the race. But these studies only looked at data at one point in time. This study was an improvement because it used Federal Elections Commission data over 21 months to see if the changes in campaign war chests over time influenced potential challengers.

The study examined 397 U.S. House of Representatives races in which an incumbent ran for reelection in 1990. FEC reports provided information on the campaign funds that incumbents had on hand at various times. Candidates are required by law to file these reports. The campaign fund information is divided into five periods starting in January 1, 1989 and running through September 30, 1990.

The study also examined whether a high-quality challenger --defined as someone who has held previous political office -- entered the race during this time. The distinction in challengers is important because low-quality challengers may enter the race with no expectation of winning, simply for publicity or other reasons. These opponents probably don't consider how much money the incumbent has raised in making their decision to run.

"The high-quality candidates are usually risking more to enter the race and they really want to win," Box-Steffensmeier said. "Their decisions whether to enter a race are going to depend on a lot of factors, including how much money the incumbents have already raised."

High-quality challengers pay close attention to the FEC campaign finance reports, which are available to the public. "These challengers are very astute. They know how to get the FEC reports and the information is going to be a major factor in their decision to run," she said.

The study found that incumbents averaged between $152,126 and $243,620 of cash on hand during the election season. Challengers, in contrast, had virtually no cash-on-hand "which emphasizes the potential power of war chests to be a factor in challenger entry decision," she said.

The study also found that, after a certain point, the size of the incumbent's war chest had less affect on a potential challenger's decision to run. For example, the first $100,000 that the incumbent raised decreased the chances of a high quality challenger entering the race by 26 percent. But a change in the incumbent's war chest from $900,000 to $1 million decreased the chances by only 1.8 percent.

The results of this study show the potential value of campaign finance reform that would limit the amount of money that candidates could spend during an election, Box-Steffensmeier said. It may also be helpful to legislate the timing of how candidates may spend funds, because early spending may be more effective at scaring away potential challengers.

"The ultimate goal would be to get high-quality challengers the needed funds to run an informative and competitive campaign. Competitive elections presume that there are alternatives for voters," she said. "But the large campaign war chests that incumbents collect may limit the alternatives that are available."

Ohio State University

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