How to Stay in Office
The first goal of Congressmen is to be elected to office; the second and constant goal after this is to remain in office. Therefore, beginning on the first day of a new Congressman’s term, he begins to campaign for subsequent reelections. Many duties of a Congressman, as well as the organizations he is a part of, are oriented towards helping members achieve their next term. David Mayhew, in “Congress: The Electoral Connection,” describes three primary ways that members of Congress achieve their next election.
First, advertising, which is “any effort to disseminate one’s name among constituents in such a fashion as to create a favorable image but in messages having little or no issue content.” The lack of substance regarding a Congressman’s politics and voting history is important: voters have shown they are less interested in how a Congressman has performed politically in the past as opposed to their apparent moral character and public persona. Therefore, Congressmen emphasize attributes of their personality over their politics. Congressmen rely on advertisements that promote their quantitative experience in the office; knowledge, responsiveness and concern for their constituents; and their own sincerity and independence. It is also a boon to be the incumbent, for they have increased name recognition and the financial backing to launch a successful campaign.
The methods by which an incumbent Congressman may spread his message of strong personal character varies with the office held. Frequently, House members make good use of their franking privilege, and inundate voting households with campaign advertisements by mail. Senate members often find it more effective to appear on national television to make a sound bite remark in response to a current event.
Credit claiming is the second way that Congressman attempt to gain reelection; Mayhew defines it as “acting so as to generate a belief in a relevant political actor… that one is personally responsible for causing the government…to do something that the actor…considers desirable.” The logic is that a voter who believes a Congressman can “make pleasing things happen” will reelect this member, “so that he can make pleasing things happen in the future.” For most Congressmen, the majority of credit claiming comes in the form of “casework,” a form of “particularized government benefit,” wherein a Congressman performs thousands of favors that don’t usually require legislative action. Construction projects, or cutting bureaucratic red tape for a variety of small cases (essay materials for high school students, emergency leaves for soldiers, finding missing checks for various constituents) often are highly effective for a Congressman, as it emphasizes their one-on-one connection with their constituents.
The third way is position taking, in which a Congressman publicly announces their opinion on “anything likely to be of interest” to voters. These announcements take the form of voting on specific issues, and on judgment statements made to the media. Most importantly, these statements must either specify a “mean” (how to solve a problem existing in the government) or an “end” (what a solution to the problem ought to be). Congressmen often cling to positions of their past when it continues to be profitable, and cautiously reach for new positions when it becomes necessary.
As David Mayhew has shown, the three primary means of reelection for Congressmen—advertising, credit claiming and position taking—are built into their very everyday lives.