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Candidate Quality, the Personal Vote, and the Incumbency Advantage in Congress


Most political observers agree that incumbent legislators have a considerable advantage over nonincumbents in modern congressional elections. Yet there is still disagreement over the exact source of this advantage and the explanation for its growth over time. To address this debate we utilize a unique set of historical elections data to test for the presence of an incumbency advantage in late-nineteenth-century House elections (1872–1900). We find a modest direct effect of incumbency and a substantial candidate quality effect. Moreover, the cartel-like control of ballot access by nineteenth century political parties created competition in races that the modern market-like system simply does not sustain. Our results suggest that candidate quality is a fundamental piece of the puzzle in understanding the historical development of the incumbency advantage in American politics.

Corresponding author
Jamie L. Carson is Assistant Professor of Political Science, The University of Georgia, 104 Baldwin Hall, Athens, GA 30602-1615 (
Erik J. Engstrom is Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 325 Hamilton Hall, CB #3265, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3265 (
Jason M. Roberts is Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota, 267 19th Ave. South, 1414 Social Science Building, Minneapolis, MN 55455 (
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American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
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