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Why do incumbents have such a big advantage in elections?

Why are incumbents — current political officeholders running for reelection — so powerful? It’s a question our audience has been asking.

Over the last six Statehouse election cycles, 2012 through 2022, incumbents have won about 97 percent of the time they appeared on primary and general election ballots.

Laura Wilson, University of Indianapolis associate professor of political science, said there are a few reasons why. Statehouse elections are what are called “low information races” — voters generally don’t know as much about the candidates, so basic name recognition, in which incumbents typically have the advantage, goes a long way.

She said there’s also the financial advantage of incumbency.

“You’re more likely to get funding because, as an incumbent, you’re a proven winner,” Wilson said. “And with incumbency advantage — and funders know this — they want to support someone who they think is going to be elected in office, not someone who they think will probably lose.”

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There’s also the competitiveness issue. Between 2012 and 2022, in 29 percent of races that featured a Statehouse incumbent, lawmakers didn’t face a challenge in both the primary and general elections.

Wilson said that’s because of the political balance of the districts and because state lawmaker, as a part time position, isn’t necessarily an attractive office to seek.

Brandon is our Statehouse bureau chief. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @brandonjsmith5.

Copyright 2023 IPB News. To see more, visit .

Brandon Smith is excited to be working for public radio in Indiana. He has previously worked in public radio as a reporter and anchor in mid-Missouri for KBIA Radio out of Columbia. Prior to that, he worked for WSPY Radio in Plano, Illinois as a show host, reporter, producer and anchor. His first job in radio was in another state capitol, in Jefferson City, Missouri, as a reporter for three radio stations around Missouri. Brandon graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a Bachelor of Journalism in 2010, with minors in political science and history. He was born and raised in Chicago.