Competence, integrity, and the electoral success of congressional incumbents

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


All voters may share a common interest in maximizing the quality of representatives in the U.S. House. If voters act on this interest when evaluating congressional candidates, then the electoral system will function with a collective sense of rationality. Incumbents who lack competence or integrity will be voted out, whereas skilled and principled incumbents will be retained. Quality, competence, and integrity scores are produced in this study for representatives who entered the U.S. House in the period 1969-1981. These values then are used to assess the role of incumbent quality within the electoral system. Results reveal that incumbents who are low in quality are highly likely to leave Congress after only a few years, either because of voluntary retirement or electoral defeat. Further, incumbent quality is shown to affect the dynamics of primary elections, the level of challenger spending in general elections, and the general election margin. Cumulatively, this study’s findings strongly support the claim that the electoral system functions rationally. Systemic emphasis on candidate quality provides new perspective on possible electoral reform. Most specifically, this study’s findings suggest that term limitations would be likely to reduce the aggregate level of competence and integrity in the U.S. House.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1043-1069
Number of pages27
JournalThe Journal of Politics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 1 1995
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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