Do Members of Congress Ever Lose Re-Election?

The U.S. Capitol building light up dramatically at twilight

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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

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.

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. 

Re-election Rates for House Members
Election Year Percentage of Incumbents Re-elected
2018 91%
2016 97%
2014 95%
2012 90%
2010 85%
2008 94%
2006 94%
2004 98%
2002 96%
2000 98%
1998 98%
1996 94%
1994 90%
1992 88%
1990 96%
1988 98%
1986 98%
1984 95%
1982 91%
1980 91%
1978 94%
1976 96%
1974 88%
1972 94%
1970 95%
1968 97%
1966 88%
1964 87%
1962 92%
1960 93%
1958 90%
1956 95%
1954 93%
1952 91%
1950 91%
1948 79%
1946 82%
1944 88%
1942 83%
1940 89%
1938 79%
1936 88%
1934 84%
1932 69%
1930 86%
1928 90%
1926 93%
1924 89%
1922 79%
1920 82%
1918 85%
1916 88%
1914 80%
1912 82%
1910 79%
1908 88%
1906 87%
1904 87%
1902 87%
1900 88%

Resources and Further Reading

Reelection Rates Over the Years.” OpenSecrets.org, The Center for Responsive Politics.

Huckabee, David C. “Reelection Rates of House Incumbents: 1790-1994.” Congressional Research Service, the Library of Congress, 1995.