Do Members of Congress Ever Lose Re-Election?

Why Incumbent Members of the House of Representatives Almost Always Win

U.S. Capitol
Members of Congress are almost always re-elected despite suffering from low approval ratings.  Craig A Stevens/Getty Images

The re-election rate for members of Congress is exceptionally high considering how unpopular the institution is in the eyes of the public. If you're looking for steady work, you might consider running for office yourself; job security is especially strong for members of the House of Representatives even though a significant portion of the electorate supports terms limits

So how often do members of Congress actually lose an election?

Not very.

Almost Certain to Keep Their Jobs

Incumbent members of the House seeking re-election are all but assured re-election. The re-election rate among all 435 members of the House 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. 

But there are other reasons the re-election rate for members of Congress is so high. "With wide name recognition, and usually an insurmountable advantage in campaign cash, House incumbents typically have little trouble holding onto their seats," explains the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group in Washington, D.C.

In addition, there are other built-in protections for congressional incumbents: the ability to regularly mail flattering newsletters to constituents at taxpayer expense under the guise of "constituent outreach" and to earmark money for pet projects in their districts.

Members of Congress who raise money for their colleagues are also rewarded with large amounts of campaign money for their own campaigns, making even more difficult to unseat incumbents.

So how difficult is it?   

List of 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 seats in the House.

Prior to that, the only 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.

Take note that some of the lowest re-election rates occur in the midterm elections. The political party whose president occupies the White House often sustains large losses in the House. In 2010, for example, the re-election rate for members of the House dipped to 85 percent; it was two years after Democrat Barack Obama was elected president. His party lost a whopping 52 seats in the House in 2010. 

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

The 2000s

  • 2016 — 97% of House members seeking re-election won
  • 2014 — 95%
  • 2012 — 90% 
  • 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%

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.