The incumbency effect is a phenomenon that has been frequently studied in the political science realm. It proposes that the incumbent candidate in an election has certain advantages in an election simply due to the fact that he or she is an incumbent in the position.
Several political scientists have identified advantages that come with incumbency. James Campbell outlines seven advantages in The American Campaign: U.S. Presidential Elections and the National Vote (as cited in “Partisanship and Incumbency in Presidential Elections” by Herbert F. Weisberg). These advantages include an inertia effect (“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”), the knowledge that comes from having already run a successful campaign, the ability to control the agenda and campaign without the appearance of “over-campaigning” (known as the “Rose Garden Strategy”), and being able to use the claim of “I’m still working on my promises, I just need more time.” In addition, Campbell asserts that the incumbent is more likely to lead a unified party compared to the challenger since the challenger had to compete against other candidates supported by certain groups within his or her party to be elected in the primaries. Finally Campbell states that the challenger is simply in an inherently weaker position than the incumbent.
So how has the incumbency effect played a role in Obama’s campaign, and will play a role in getting him reelected? It’s interesting to look at these advantages and apply them to Obama and his campaign.
A prime example of Obama’s ability to campaign without the appearance of “over-campaigning” was his response to the attacks in Libya. In his role as president, his first and foremost concern was to protect the embassy and express condolences to the loved ones of the diplomats who were killed. His statement to the American public in the Rose Garden is an example of the “Rose Garden strategy.” He made a statement due to his role as a president regardless of his campaign for reelection, but since it did occur during campaign season, it was an opportunity for him to be portrayed in a positive, pro-American light. This event wasn’t viewed as campaigning, and his actions were not a result of campaigning, but his actions as president made him be viewed favorably to the American public. This is highlighted in a Huffington Post article.
Another example of an advantage for Obama is the ability to campaign on the idea of needing more time to fulfill promises. His whole campaign has focused on the idea of “forward.” He talks about the fact that “there is still more work to be done” and his plan to continue “to move the country forward in his second term.”
While several of the advantages do apply to Obama, others are just as applicable to Obama as they are to Romney. The “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, for many, doesn’t apply in this election because many Americans believe America is “broken.” This is apparent by a recent Gallup poll that found two thirds of Americans are not satisfied with the state of the nation. This would eliminate this incumbency advantage for Obama.
In addition, while one may say Romney hasn’t conducted a successful presidential campaign, he did run a successful gubernatorial campaign and also has experience running in the Republican primaries. The difference between his knowledge of campaigning and Obama’s knowledge of campaigning does not seem substantial enough to claim that Obama has the advantage.
So what does this mean for Obama and his chance of winning the election? We’ll find out come early November.