Incumbents Have the Upper Hand in Elections – Coordination Failures Give Them a Further Advantage

Yves here. This post points out how parties and candidates on the outside, even in countries that routinely from coalition government and thus have some familiarity with power sharing, in practice don’t play well enough together pre-election to slay incumbents. Perhaps readers can highlight important counter-examples.

By Kevin Dano, PhD candidate in Economics University of California, Berkeley; Francesco Ferlenga, PhD candidate in Economics Brown University; Vincenzo Galasso, Professor of Economics Bocconi University; Research Fellow Centre for Economic Policy Research; Caroline LePennec, Assistant Professor Hec Montreal; Vincent Pons, Associate Professor Harvard Business School; Faculty Research Fellow National Bureau Of Economic Research (NBER); and Vestal McIntyre, editor and writer at the Economic Growth Center at Yale University, and other organizations Yale University. Originally published at VoxEU

The advantages of incumbency in political campaigns are well established. This column examines the interplay of incumbency and coordination, another force that influences election outcomes. Failures to coordinate can allow multiple candidates with similar platforms to split the vote, benefitting candidates with less representative positions and resulting in suboptimal officeholders. The authors show how the two forces compound one another in French elections, with coordination failures increasing an incumbent’s advantage, and encourage policymakers to keep the combination in sight when reforming the electoral process.

Incumbents tend to have an advantage in elections. This has been shown by a large literature, and is a concern since it may prevent the best candidate from winning.

When we say ‘best’, we are using a broad definition of candidate quality, encompassing personal characteristics (for instance, how qualified they are and how impervious to corruption) as well as how closely their positions align with their constituents. Ideally, democratic systems will allow the best candidate to win, regardless of whether they currently hold office or have name recognition with voters. Democratic systems are weaker when incumbents enjoy advantages that allow them to get re-elected regardless of quality.

When incumbents are harder to remove, electoral turnovers are less likely, which is also a concern. Using data from national elections conducted worldwide since 1945, Marx et al. (2022 and 2023) find that turnovers lead to improvements in governance, economic performance, and other measures of national health. So, to the extent that the incumbency advantage prevents turnovers from taking place, it may further weaken democracy and governance.

Evidence of an incumbency advantage in the US House of Representatives goes back decades (Erikson 1971, Gersbach 2012). A number of papers use quasi-experimental methods to measure the advantage. Lee (2008) uses a regression discontinuity design (RDD) in close US elections, comparing parties that barely win to those that barely lose. The paper shows that the incumbent party is upwards of 40 percentage points more likely to win elections than the non-incumbent party. The method and results of that study were replicated in other contexts with similar results (e.g. Fowler and Hall 2014), as well as in other countries, from Canada (Kendall and Rekkas 2012) to Norway (Fiva and Rohr 2018).

In a new paper (Dano et al. 2022), five of us examine for the first time the intersection of incumbency and another potential advantage: the ability to coordinate and clear the field of ideologically similar candidates who could potentially split the vote.

The Coordination Effect

In elections with more than two candidates, it is important to solve coordination problems, lest the outcome undermine the representativeness of the election. This is particularly relevant in countries with multiparty systems.

To understand the importance of coordination, consider an election with two candidates on the left, each of them supported by 30% of voters, and one candidate on the right, supported by 40% of voters. If the two parties on the left do not coordinate and agree to ask one of their candidates to drop out – and voters on the left do not manage to coordinate on their end to rally behind only one of the two candidates – then the right-wing candidate may end up winning, even though they are clearly the least representative of the electorate.

From a theoretical standpoint, it is unclear who stands to benefit more from coordination. The incumbent may use the political power of being in office to prevent ideologically close candidates from running. Or the challengers may have learned a lesson from their defeat in the previous election, and coordinate to win the next.

The literature has less to say about the coordination effect than the incumbency advantage. A study by Anagol and Fujiwara (2016) shows that parties and voters in elections in Brazil, India, and Canada tend to coordinate on behalf of candidates who barely placed second in the previous election, so that these candidates are more likely than barely third-place candidates to contest, and win, subsequent elections. Pons and Tricaud (2018) document coordination failures in French elections: they show that when a third candidate makes it into the second round, their presence harms the candidate ideologically closest to them and causes their defeat in one fifth of the races – a result driven by voters who value voting expressively (for the candidate they genuinely prefer) over coordinating. Using a method resembling Anagol and Fujiwara (2016), we show (in Granzier et al. 2022) that past rankings can be a powerful coordination device both for parties and voters.

Our new paper is the first to bring the incumbency advantage and coordination effects together.

Coordination Failures Compound the Incumbency Advantage – but How?

Our study focuses on French local and parliamentary elections, which use a two-round plurality voting rule and feature a large number of candidates in the first round. We employ an RDD in a sample of more than 20,000 of these races, comparing candidates who just win or just lose an election, and the pool of candidates they face in the next election, as well as their own chances of winning.

First, we find that a large incumbency advantage exists.

Then, in our main finding, we show that a close victory reduces competition from ideologically similar candidates and leads the victor to a stronger performance in the next cycle. Incumbents are 33 percentage points more likely than their closest challenger to compete again in the next election, and they face (on average) 0.43 fewer competitors who share their orientation. Overall, a candidate’s victory increases their likelihood of winning the next election by 25.1 percentage points.

So, coordination is taking place, and more effectively on the side of the incumbent, compounding the incumbency advantage. But is coordination on the part of the campaigns – meaning the parties and candidates – or on the part of voters? The answer appears to be both.

Evidence that Parties and Candidates Coordinate

We find that the reduction in competition from challengers who share the incumbent’s political orientation is driven by the dropout rate of candidates affiliated with political parties, not by unaffiliated challengers. We interpret this as evidence of communication between the parties, rather than the incumbent exerting pressure on others to drop out; otherwise, we would see the same frequency of dropouts among unaffiliated candidates.

Once the campaigns have coordinated on a field of candidates, it is the voters’ turn. Will voters coordinate to the incumbent’s advantage (rallying behind someone familiar) or to the advantage of challengers?

Here, we have two pieces of evidence, both of which point to an advantage for the incumbent.

Incumbents Are Able to Run More Original Campaigns

Incumbents might have more resources and run better campaigns. We explore this first by looking at campaign expenditures, and find no solid evidence; and second, by using text analysis to examine and compare the content of digitised two-page candidate manifestos mailed by the state to all registered voters. We find that incumbents’ manifestos are more original, where manifesto originality is defined relative to other candidates from the same party. The latter result suggests that incumbents’ communication strategies are more personalised and better tailored to their voters’ preferences.

Candidates Gain Name Recognition That Benefits Them in Future Elections

We run a separate RDD that measures the impact of qualifying for the runoff on the next elections’ results, using the same sample of elections. Unlike winning the election (and becoming the incumbent), qualifying for the runoff has no effect on the number of competitors with the same orientation in the next election. However, it does increase candidates’ future vote share. This effect indicates that candidates who do well in an election gain name recognition for voters, and is consistent with the hypothesis that incumbency advantage is driven by voters’ behaviour as well.


Our results may weigh into decisions made by policymakers, candidates, and voters.

Policymakers in many countries discuss which voting rules are best, and sometimes change rules to make elections more representative (Cantoni et al. 2022). To inform such decisions, scholars design election overhauls that might overcome the incumbency advantage (Gersbach 2016). The fact that coordination gives incumbents yet another advantage may weigh in policymakers’ decisions to even the playing field for challengers.

For candidates and parties, particularly on the losing-side, it is important to note that coordination gives incumbents a leg up, and perhaps be more proactive in communicating about when to bow out of a contest for the good of the party’s ideals.

Finally, voters supporting challengers in multi-party systems may face the choice to vote with their heart or with their head. They should be aware that the incumbent has a hidden advantage, and that it can be overcome through coordination.

See original post for references

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Dieter

    I wonder if all the cynical backbiting from post-liberal journalists about how lefty Dems are not truly lefty because they have to compromise enough to even participate in the system, that they’re less than useless.
    Creating an environmental where they’re derned if they do, and derned if they don’t, while the non-incumbent MTGs of the world get free shrift from her companions, because while it’s crazy, it doesn’t particularly conflict with the anti-social conservative goals.

    The incumbent Nancy Pelosis of the world clearly don’t need grassroots support, and reactionaries benefit from a politics of intransigence, but the crabs in a bucket on the left just can’t manage to stop being pedantic long enough to collectively drag the overton window in their direction.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    The article ignores one key advantage incumbents have – the power of patronage and pork. Having delivered and, implicitly, potentially delivering in the future is a major benefit. Any experienced politician will know that having a core of people who feel they owe you a favour is much more powerful than having a more amorphous sense of dislike or distrust. This is how ‘unpopular’ and even ‘widely disliked’ incumbents keep getting elected. As Tip O’Neill famously said ‘all politics is local’.

    In multi seat systems like here in Ireland co-ordination between competing candidates is the norm. Its the only way to build up preferences. Often the most common strategy is not to compete with a sitting candidate but to provide lots of alternatives to that candidate to undermine their vote. A common thing on the doorsteps you will hear is ‘oh, no need to vote for X, he’s safe, he is sure to get in, you should use your vote more wisely’.

    1. hk

      Pork and patronage used to be a lot more important in US, but not particularly important today. If anything even fairly simple advantages like name recognition have been falling. Incumbents spend far less time securing pork for their home districts or even visiting to meet and greet a decent number of regular people–heck, if incumbency advantage came from these activities, it would actually be a good thing. If anything, at least as far as US is concerned, the “traditional” advantage of incumbents may have declined quite a bit, if we were to measure it in terms of how they perform in spite of adverse partisan/ideological environment. If there is still an incumbency advantage in the States any more, I’d suggest that it comes mainly nowadays from being able to play the party machinery for their own benefit, of making it difficult for capable within party challengers to emerge, and, the consequences of gerrymandering and population movements are that having the right party’s nomination is all that you need to win in ever growing number of districts (and, increasingly, states, too) anyways.

  3. Mark Gisleson

    Strange how the word “media” does not appear in this article. In talking about American challengers and incumbents, the BIGGEST problem is that local news media now refuse to cover challengers. Incumbents get ink and face time, challengers are barely mentioned and rarely shown.

    American news media is very bottom line now: pay them for ads or GTF out. And thanks to old reforms, challengers who have a toehold in the media have to surrender their media gigs after they announce. Challengers can’t even get op-ed space. They are mentioned in the context of the incumbent, a personal scandal or not at all. Giving them coverage reduces their incentive to raise money to buy ads.

    And if your incumbent will actually debate you? The moderators will all come from the same local news media who’ve known the incumbent forever and are often openly hostile to challengers.

    If Europe’s elections are as greased as ours, it’s no wonder the West is in such horrible shape.

  4. Alice X

    Richard D. Wolff would often say that there was a higher election turnover of incumbent delegates in the old Soviet Union than for the US Congress. But of course they were a one party state, unlike the US.

    Oh, wait…

  5. John Anthony La Pietra

    Thanks for this post! However, I notice there is no mention of instant-runoff/ranked-choice/preferential voting. (Or proportional representation.) I hope the authors will take these factors into account in a future paper. Or perhaps the 2016 Gersbach paper (or another cited source) has already done so?

    1. hk

      Ireland has ranked choice voting. Granted, it’s a multimember district system, so its inner workings are quite a bit different, but as per PlutoniumKun’s observation above, it actually enhances incumbency advantage. In single member district systems, there really is no good reason for the incumbency advantage to work any differently (being able to rank the candidates, I think, only gives the voters a sense of psychological satisfaction–I voted against that bum before voting for him.)

  6. Paul Art

    Good point. It also brings up the issue of the ‘dog whistle’ vote. Nothing can be done about this I suppose. If a bunch of know nothings keep voting just to ‘own the libs’ and keep sliding into poverty and the fell clutch of deregulation (see Palestine,OH) then we keep bumping into the proof for ‘the worst form of gummint’ every election cycle.

Comments are closed.