5.9 Congressional Elections

4 min readmarch 12, 2023



AP US Government 👩🏾‍⚖️

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Incumbency Advantage Phenomenon

The processes for congressional elections are similar in some ways to presidential elections, but there are several distinct differences. Elections for all 435 seats in the House of Representatives 🏡 take place every two years, while the Senate is considered a “continuous body” because only one-third of its seats are up for reelection every two years. Midterm elections occur in the middle of a presidential term, and receive far fewer media 📺 📻 📰 attention and lower voter turnout. Incumbency advantage is even more advantageous in House and Senate elections compared to presidential elections.
Similar to presidential incumbents, congressional incumbents enjoy greater name recognition than most challengers as a result of communicating with constituents via email 💻, social media 📲, and TV appearances 📺. Incumbents can reference their record on drafting, supporting, and voting on popular legislation 📜 during their term. One of the most significant advantages is the ability to raise larger quantities of money for campaign costs 💰 💲 💸 Political Action Committees (PACs)—groups that advocate for various interests/issues—provide far more financial support to incumbents because they are far more likely to win reelection (approximately 90% in the House and 60% in the Senate) than lose to a lesser known challenger. Just look at this example from the elections in 2010:
IncumbentsChallengersOpen Seats
Business PACs85%3%12%
Labor PACs55%22%23%
Ideology / Single-Issue PACs80%5%15%

Primaries and Caucuses

Similar to presidential elections, candidates for House and Senate elections must secure their party’s nomination through a series of primaries and caucuses before competing in the general election. In some states, “safe seats” have become common due to the highly partisan redrawing ✏ of legislative districts, also known as gerrymandering. This practice is essentially a manipulation of electoral district boundaries to benefit a political party or group, done by redrawing the map in a way that gives them an unfair advantage in elections.
It's often used to increase the number of seats won by a particular party, reduce the representation of minority groups, or create "safe" districts for incumbent politicians. The term is named after Elbridge Gerry, a governor of Massachusetts who signed a redistricting plan in 1812 that created an oddly shaped electoral district that was criticized for being designed to benefit his party.
Safe seats (or safe districts) are viewed as unhealthy to the democratic process because candidates in these districts tend to become less responsive to constituents from the opposing party 🟦 🟥, since they have an overwhelming amount of support from their own party. As gerrymandering has increased, the overall number of safe seats skyrocketed 🚀, allowing for more ideological extremists to become elected and remain in power.
One of the biggest differences between primaries for congressional and presidential elections is the scope and scale of the competition. Presidential primaries are national in scope and involve a much larger number of candidates and voters, making them much more competitive and intense. In contrast, congressional primaries are typically held on a state or district level and usually involve fewer candidates and voters. Another difference between the two types of primaries is the type of voters who participate. In presidential primaries, all registered voters who are members of a political party can participate in the voting process, regardless of where they live. In contrast, in congressional primaries, only registered voters who live within a particular district can participate in the voting process for that district's election. The rules and regulations for primary elections can also vary between the two types of elections. For example, some states have open primaries for presidential elections, where registered voters can participate regardless of their political affiliation, while other states have closed primaries where only registered members of a political party can participate. Similarly, some states have different rules for how candidates can qualify for the primary ballot in congressional and presidential elections. Another key difference between the two types of primaries is the timing and schedule. Presidential primaries are typically held over a period of several months, with voting taking place in multiple states on the same day or on consecutive days. In contrast, congressional primaries are usually held on a state-by-state basis, with voting taking place on different days in different states.

General (Presidential and Midterm) Elections

Congressional elections can indirectly influence the outcome of presidential elections in the United States by affecting the balance of power in Congress. A president's ability to pass their legislative agenda and implement their policies often depends on the political makeup of Congress, particularly the House of Representatives and the Senate. If a president's political party holds a majority in both houses, they have a stronger mandate to pass their policies and advance their agenda. On the other hand, if the opposing party holds a majority or if there is a divided government, the president may face more opposition and have a harder time passing their legislation.
Congressional elections can affect a president's chance of re-election by influencing their popularity and public perception. The outcome of congressional elections, particularly the midterm elections, can serve as a referendum on the president's performance and policies and can have a significant impact on their approval ratings. If the president's political party does well in the midterm elections, it can boost their approval and increase their chances of re-election, whereas if their party does poorly, it can hurt their approval and decrease their chances of re-election.

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