Home>Articles>The New Power of Incumbency: How COVID-19 Has Changed Voters’ Expectations for Politicians

116th Congress. (Photo: Rep. Julia Brownley.house.gov)

The New Power of Incumbency: How COVID-19 Has Changed Voters’ Expectations for Politicians

Will the trust levels voters are giving to incumbents transition into support in the General Election?

By Chris Faulkner, April 2, 2020 3:06 pm

Since 1964, voters have returned their incumbent representative to Washington 93 percent of the time. 

In recent years, however, the advantage typically belonged to the outsider candidate, the person vowing to drain the swamp from the state capital to Washington, D.C. But the tables appear to be turning again. Added to the many life-altering changes brought by the COVID-19 pandemic this year is a renewed desire for security and stability.

In other words, the power of incumbency is back.

In times of crisis, incumbent leaders are the ones with the ability to deliver important, often life-saving information and emergency assistance. They coordinate services between local, state and federal governments, and they have a unique vantage point from which they can convey a sense of confidence and control to an anxious public. This advantage offers a remarkable opportunity for incumbents to provide what voters actually want in their elected officials, especially in times of crisis, and that’s leadership.

Americans are stuck at home and starving for reliable content, consuming information at record numbers. Incumbents are trusted sources for that information. According to a recent Gallup poll, 82 percent of Americans approve of the way their state government is handling the response to the coronavirus. Compared to the 44 percent who trust the news media, this is a huge platform from which leaders in elective office can share information.

With the recent passage of a stimulus bill, one that is more than double the stimulus package passed during the Great Recession, incumbents and those elected in 2020 will be at the helm of steering government resources for a generation. As much as we would like to believe the federal stimulus is going to shovel-ready projects, most of them are not. It will take time to spend this money at every level of government – federal, state, and local. Government contracts are likely to explode over the next six to 12 months, and elected officials will have millions of dollars at their disposal to help their constituencies.

We don’t know for sure when this crisis will end, nor do we know whether the trust levels voters are giving to incumbents will transition into support in the General Election. What we know is that, in this time of crisis, citizens across the nation are looking to and trusting in their government officials.

Our leaders have a chance to restore confidence in our government and change the political landscape to one that celebrates experience and stability over change and uncertainty.

Incumbents with leadership experience are once again, at least for the moment, in vogue, and they are tasked with maintaining that trust and using their platform to disseminate information, set the public’s mind at ease and portray confidence in a time of crisis.

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