Do Members of Congress Ever Lose Re-Election?

Incumbents Members of the House of Representatives Are Very Successful

U.S. Congress inside the House of Representatives
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We all know politicians aren't very popular. And that's an understatement when it comes to how Americans feel about members of Congress. But here's the weird thing about politics: Many of the same representatives keep winning election after election despite having abysmally low approval ratings and relatively strong support for term limits.

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So how often do members of Congress, specifically the U.S. House of Representatives, actually lose an election?

It's almost unheard of.

Incumbent Re-Election Rates

In fact, incumbent members of the House seeking re-election are all but assured re-election. The re-election rate has been as high as 98 percent in modern history, and it's rarely dipped below 90 percent. 

The late Washington Post political columnist David Broder referred to this phenomenon as "incumbent lock" and blamed gerrymandered congressional districts for eliminating any notion of competition in general elections. 

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Wrote the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group in Washington, D.C.: "Few things in life are more predictable than the chances of an incumbent member of the U.S. House of Representatives winning reelection. With wide name recognition, and usually an insurmountable advantage in campaign cash, House incumbents typically have little trouble holding onto their seats."

Re-Election Rates For House Members By Year

Here's a look at the re-election rates for members of the House of Representatives going back to the 1900 congressional election.

On only four occasions did more than 20 percent of incumbents seeking re-election actually lose their races. The most recent such election was in 1948, when Democratic presidential nominee Harry S. Truman campaigned against a "do-nothing Congress."

The wave election resulted in a massive turnover in Congress, one that rewarded Democrats with 75 more seas in the House.

Prior to that, the previous election that resulted in a substantial ouster of incumbents was in 1938, amid a recession and soaring unemployment. Republicans picked up 81 seats in Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt's midterm election.

Here's a look at re-election rates for House members over the years:

The 2000s

  • 2012 — 90% of House members seeking re-election won
  • 2010 — 85%
  • 2008 — 94%
  • 2006 — 94%
  • 2004 — 98%
  • 2002 — 96%
  • 2000 — 98%

The 1990s

  • 1998 — 98%
  • 1996 — 94%
  • 1994 — 90%
  • 1992 — 88% 
  • 1990 — 96%

The 1980s

  • 1988 — 98%
  • 1986 — 98%
  • 1984 — 95%
  • 1982 — 91%
  • 1980 — 91%

The 1970s

  • 1978 — 94%
  • 1976 — 96%
  • 1974 — 88%
  • 1972 — 94%
  • 1970 — 95%

The 1960s

  • 1968 — 97%
  • 1966 — 88%
  • 1964 — 87%
  • 1962 — 92%
  • 1960 — 93%

The 1950s

  • 1958 — 90%
  • 1956 — 95%
  • 1954 — 93%
  • 1952 — 91%
  • 1950 — 91%

The 1940s

  • 1948 — 79%
  • 1946 — 82%
  • 1944 — 88%
  • 1942 — 83%
  • 1940 — 89%

The 1930s

  • 1938 — 79%
  • 1936 — 88%
  • 1934 — 84%
  • 1932 — 69%
  • 1930 — 86%

The 1920s

  • 1928 — 90%
  • 1926 — 93%
  • 1924 — 89%
  • 1922 — 79%
  • 1920 — 82%

The 1910s

  • 1918 — 85%
  • 1916 — 88% 
  • 1914 — 80%
  • 1912 — 82%
  • 1910 — 79%

The 1900s

  • 1908 — 88%
  • 1906 — 87%
  • 1904 — 87% 
  • 1902 — 87%
  • 1900 — 88%

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Sources: Re-Election Rates of House Incumbents: 1790-1994 published by the Congressional Research Service and David C. Huckabee on March 8, 1995; and Opensecrets.org/Center for Responsive Politics for re-election rates in the years 1996 through 2012.

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Murse, Tom. "Do Members of Congress Ever Lose Re-Election?" ThoughtCo, Oct. 28, 2014, thoughtco.com/do-congressmen-ever-lose-re-election-3367511. Murse, Tom. (2014, October 28). Do Members of Congress Ever Lose Re-Election? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/do-congressmen-ever-lose-re-election-3367511 Murse, Tom. "Do Members of Congress Ever Lose Re-Election?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/do-congressmen-ever-lose-re-election-3367511 (accessed January 17, 2018).