Document Type

Unpublished Paper

Publication Date



U.S. House elections, incumbency, reelection, incumebent quality, electoral outcomes


American Politics | Economics


Efforts to estimate the magnitude of the incumbency effect in U.S. House elections and assess its political meaning have been complicated by two omitted-variables problems. First, in the absence of an adequate measure of incumbent prospects, estimates of the magnitude of the incumbency effect fail to control for selection effects associated with the decision incumbents make about whether to run for reelection. Strategic incumbents enter races they think they can win and withdraw when they expect to lose. The consequence is an upward bias in estimates of incumbents’ electoral advantages. Second, the normative implications of high reelection rates cannot be assessed without measuring incumbent quality, since a possible explanation for their electoral success is that incumbents are of high quality and doing a good job. We propose a strategy for measuring incumbent prospects and quality, demonstrate the strategic nature of incumbent and challenger entry, re-estimate the incumbency effect, and show that incumbent quality has an impact on electoral outcomes. Our conclusion is that incumbents’ advantages in House elections have been over estimated while the positive basis of incumbent safety is typically under appreciated.