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Understanding challenges of running against an incumbent: Strategies to win an election as challenger.

by Brian Hanf
I would like to thank Maggie Osskopp, Former Congressman John Kline's Political Director, for all her help.

The political climate in the U.S. seems to be reaching a boiling point. Currently, a lot of press and 'water cooler' talk revolves around the thinking 'throw the bums out', but voters never seem to do that. Many books and studies have been done that show that incumbents win an overwhelming amount of the time. Some of the research presented will discuss win rates and areas that might increase the odds for challengers. This includes the principals of strategy called MOOSEMUSS. The peer reviewed research and advice from experts leads to defining six strategy types. This leads to identification of four areas of research that point to things a challenger can use to win, including who is more likely to beat an incumbent. Reasons exist to face an incumbent shown in a study of the 1970-1984 elections that the lower your office the more likely you will defeat an incumbent (Green & Krasno, 1990). In addition, the reseach shows some ways that a challenger can increase their chances of success. Winning an election as a challenger can be achieved if a person can understand what strategy is, what strategy the campaign should use and by using the right tactics.

Understanding what the challenge is for a candidate facing an incumbent must begin with discussing the success and failure numbers. In the nineteen seventy's and eighty's, incumbents won by over 93% (Banks & Kiewiet, 1989). These numbers are hard to look at if you are considering running against an incumbent. With the opportunity for incumbents to raise money presents one major advantage. The money advantage in incumbent governors' primary races resulted in only 5 defeats in primaries between 1980 and 2000 (Bardwell, 2003). The closer the contest, the more incumbents tend to raise. In fact incumbents and challengers both raise and spend more in close contests (Bardwell, 2003). So you can expect that the incumbent will spend more money as challengers have success. The research reveals some academic debate over the impact of incumbent and challenger spending; mainly in where the incumbents starts (count last election's dollars or not) for figuring the yield per dollar spent. But this can be said, challengers' productivity in spending reaches a point of diminishing returns; however for incumbents this is not the case (Green & Krasno, 1990). Green and Krasno (1990) suggest that we compare the yield, the number of votes “purchased” by each candidate. So while the incumbent is starting with usually much higher name recognition we see that the cost to increase vote yield is higher and appears to be more linear. The previously discussed money advantage that incumbents have tend to offset the effects of the challenger's spending (Green & Krasno, 1990). The quality of the candidate also appears to be a factor in yield production (Green & Krasno, 1990; Bardwell, 2003). This means that if an incumbent spends $10,000 and increases his votes one percent (1%) that holds steady for the next $10,000 spent. In contrast the challengers first $10,000 might produce ten percent (10%) increase in vote percent. Then we see might expect to see that the challenger's second $10,000 spent might see only five percent (5%) increase in vote percent. Of course, the incumbent tends to start with some 'guaranteed' votes, the academic debate surrounds how much and what amount of yield should be attributed to holding office. Green and Krasno's (1990) work identifies a formula for congressional races on actual dollars spend and yield expected.

To incorporate any advantages presented into a campaign plan and strategy, challengers need to know what strategy is. Ron Faucheux (1997), one of the great campaign consultants, defined strategy in a Campaigns & Elections article by saying “strategy is how you position the candidate and allocate campaign resources to the benefit of the candidate's strengths and minimizing weaknesses” (p. 2). Do not confuse message and tactic with strategy. Understanding the difference is critical to winning as a challenger. So how does strategy differ from tactic and message? Strategy is when and how (Faucheux 1997). Tactic is the tool used to implement strategy (Faucheux 1997). What you say that gives voters reason to vote for you is the message (Faucheux 1997). If you're challenging an incumbent, think of using a series of campaign videos to discuss your policy. What is said in the video is message, tactic is using the video (releasing them on your web site, just to media or the world via something like You Tube). So the strategy is using videos released weekly (daily or some other timeframe) to convey policy and timing those releases to match other events or to keep incumbent off guard. For example, health care policy video timed with a mailer and a visit to the blood donation center with media invited to take photos.

Once a challenger knows what strategy is then the principles of strategy should be used to build a plan. Candidates can use the acronym MOOSEMUSS. MOOSEMUSS is Mass, Objective, Offensive, Simplicity, Economy of Force, Maneuver, Unity of Command, Surprise and Security. Also used as the principles of war, MOOSEMUSS is a nice tool for planning any campaign. Concentrating your mass (strength), a candidate can overpower the opposition. Direct your strength at opponent's weakness (Sweitzer 1996). In the middle of a campaign it can be very hard to keep the objective in focus. While some find it to be the ugly side of politics, one strategy is to knock down an opponent (Sweitzer 1996). In the heat of a campaign, some tactics leave some candidates feeling bad about the methods used. The objective is winning not making your opponent look good. The next principal is offense and, as they say, it is the best defense. If the opposition is responding to the challenger they are not getting their message out. So be on message. As a challenger you need to take the 'fight' to them. Simplicity is key. All campaigns need to turn the overwhelming project of a campaign into small goals. For example, if the campaign needs 10,000 votes to win, break it down into a daily (or weekly) goal. Economy of Force in political campaigns, according to Thomas 'Doc' Sweitzer (1996), is “using the fewest possible resources to keep operation going while concentrating on the objective” (p. 2). Can the campaign do with something less than perfect? Think about the need. Focus on it, if it helps the candidate beat the opposition.

The second M in MOOSEMUSS is maneuver and in politics that is the strategy. There are many types of strategy and this paper covers them in more detail later. For now, just know that campaigns need at least one, and many times three or more strategies are used in the course of a campaign (Sweitzer 1996). Challenger campaigns should not get caught in the first or second stages of a campaign and just keep deploying the same tactics, not understanding that it is not enough. At different points candidates or campaign managers need to ask “what the next step to win the election?” When those answers change is when a new strategy may come into play. All campaigns are fast moving organizations and need to react quickly so the seventh principal, unity of command, is very important. Sometimes, even a correct decision is wrong because it is late in coming. The old saying “too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth” applies to campaigns. All candidates need to be mindful of the clock. The second to the last principal is surprise. It is said that war strategy is grounded in deception (Sweitzer 1996). Catching an opponent off guard doesn't have to be huge. Include something the incumbent doesn't expect in challenger strategy and tactics - attack at a strength, for example, can put the opposition on edge. Discussing the last principal, secrecy, Sweitzer (1996) quotes what political analyst Jeff Greenfield said, "There is no such thing as paranoia in politics, because they really are out to get you" (p. 30). The plans of a challenger's campaign can all go up in smoke with a simple comment to another candidate's team member or supporter. Discuss secrecy with all staff and volunteers. Be clear to everyone about what is public and can be told. Be even clearer about what is secret.

The experts apply the principals of strategy in many ways. Many of these experts have written about specific types and styles of strategy and they can be summed up with this list: positive, attrition, referendum (a vote for campaign is a vote for the issue), division (variations on voter base and ideological division), get-out-the-vote (low or predicable voter turnout, who or how many supporters), and comparative (negative) strategies.

The positive strategy is just like it sounds. In positive messaging campaigns candidates only talk about their ideas. Challengers do not contrast their ideas against the incumbents. One possible strategy is ignoring the opposition completely. The more common use of positive strategy is to start out with positive messaging but respond to attacks, ending the campaign on only positive messages. Faucheux (1997) calls that formulation the “Classic” and says it should be considered in two situations (p. 4). The first is when the candidates party, ideological or demographic advantage is clear. The second is if challenger doesn't have negatives useable by the challengers campaign, as a knock out, to use against the incumbent. As a challenger, comparing yourself to the incumbent, or stating the case why the incumbent should not be reelected, are considered negative campaigning. So as a challenger, using only positive strategies would not appear practical, unless you can overwhelm them.

Which brings us to attrition. Challengers with enough critical mass can overwhelm the opposition. Remember Green and Krasno (2001) state that incumbents most vulnerable to defeat spend the most. So any campaign that employees an attrition strategy should know that the incumbent's access to media and fundraising might offset the forces the challenger might use to overwhelm. But lazy incumbents can be outworked by an underdog challenger (Faucheux 1997). The effect of campaign expenditures on vote yield is unmistakable but even incumbents can see diminishing returns (Green & Krasno, 1990). Green and Krasno (1990 ) make it known that diminishing returns are possible when expenditures by incumbent are high, higher than their data from 1978 allowed for. For a challenger to overwhelm an incumbent with expenditures they must spend much more than the incumbent. Faucheux (1997) suggests that a two-to-one imbalance isn't enough. Challenger campaigns should take this research to mean that you need to overwhelm the incumbent in such a way that they will not be able to either: respond to endorsements, get volunteers to contact voters, raise enough money or have enough time to spend what they have effectively.

The third type of strategy is referendum, the messaging for this kind of strategy revolves around the theme that a vote for you is a vote for an issue. This could ride on the “throw the bums out” feelings, or more specific issue. Of course, you run the risk that the issue goes out of the public view. For example, if the city council is talking about spending money on a new water tower and it is going to raise taxes, a challenger could run on a “no water tower” stance. So a vote for you means no water tower(i.e. lower taxes).

The forth type of strategy is called division and it includes variations on voter base and ideological division. This can include using a strategy that surrounds the opponent and doesn't let them move out of a position. Faucheux (1997) calls this strategy “Pincer” where the incumbent takes a major stance and then challenger can surround them with negative consequences of that stance (p. 3). A variation of the “Pincer” is in multi-candidate races where the middle candidate is blocked from the others stances. This could also be mentioning a key partisan stance in a nonpartisan race to make sure the voters (in an area that leans heavily that way) know the challenger is that party or ideology. If the incumbent has a neutral or opposing ideology the challenger should consider division strategies.

The fifth is often used as a secondary strategy, or in conjunction with another, the “Get-out-the-Vote” (GOTV) is used in election where low or predictable voter turnout exists. GOTV strategy is alternately called “Voter Identification” strategy (M. Osskopp, personal communication, March 4, 2010). Faucheux (1997) describes this as persuasion and mobilization strategies. GOTV depends on the creation and identification of a supporter base then doing steps to enlarge or persuade voters to increase your supporters, and then get those people to the polls. Many campaign guides discuss doing GOTV tactics, like phone calls and offering rides to the poll, in the last few days of a campaign. A GOTV strategy depends on preparing for the tactics from day one of the campaign. One group of strategies that challengers can use with GOTV strategies is timing and intensity strategies. Tactics for both of these types of strategy require organization but don't require a lot of fundraising and that makes them good for challengers with little of the later.

Timing strategies use periods of intense action and relative inaction to frame the campaign. Faucheux (1997) decribes the “Tortoise”, “Bookend”, “Pearl Harbor”, and the “Hold Your Fire” when discussing various timing strategies (p. 4). These all have the appearance of down periods, where the incumbent might be caused to think you have a small campaign, stopped campaigning, or have not campaigned at all. Faucheux (1997) says that the “Pearl Harbor”, saving all your resources for a blitzkrieg in the last week (or weeks), leaves little room for error. Timing strategies are paired well with GOTV but, even if timing is not a total strategy, it should pay a major role in your planning.

The last strategy is the comparative strategy (also called negative). If the messaging of a campaign compares their position with that of an opposition candidate then that is considered to be negative campaigning. Candidates need not think of negative as hostile or nasty campaigning even though just calling it negative gives that impression to some. Usually this relies on messaging tactics, but doesn't have to be just messaging. The comparative can be used with positive messages, where positive strategy (discussed above) only responds to attacks. The comparative strategy begins the attacks before the opposition (Faucheux, 1997). Most challengers will need to compare the incumbent's record. Unless incumbent has already done so, you will need to give them the reason to doubt that incumbent, because many voters look at elections as a “referendum on incumbent” (Molyneux, 2004 p.1). In addition, at some point the challenger will be asked if they are qualified, and they need an answer (Grey 2007). So comparative not only points out the reasons to not re-elect the incumbent but adds reasons to elect you. Challengers should consider that they might not need to weaken the incumbent, if they last won with less than 50% or this is not a plurality election.

Remember these six types of strategy are just a primer for challengers to build their strategy. As a recommendation to develop tactics, challengers should think of 10 ways to show how the incumbent is something (i.e. out of touch with constituency, for/against popular issue, for/against a special interest group, etc.). Think of 10 ways to show that the challenger will do opposite of that something (i.e. stay in touch, against/for popular issue, against/for a special interest group, etc.). If the challenger does those 10 things, not just telling people 10 ways the incumbent is something, then campaign has developed tactics. Plan your strategy. Then devise as many ways to implement it. Because not all tactics are successful, campaigns will need many tactics in their bag of tricks. Campaigns should stick with their chosen strategy, but they might need to change tactics.

While the media access, history and money advantages can seem overwhelming to a challenger, some research points to four areas to give those challengers hope. Success in taking out a congressional incumbent seems to reflect a lack of previous elective office is the first. In the paper “Explaining patterns of candidate competition” Banks and Kiewiet (1989) discuss reasons for political participation. Lower ranking candidates don't show up as often in open seat elections as frequently (Banks & Kiewiet, 1989). Simply stated, if there is a lot of really good competition, the amateurs stay home and leave it to the professionals. Interestingly, while a lower quality of candidate typically produces lower vote yield production (from dollars spent), the lower quality candidate is the one with the most success against incumbents. From 1970-1984 twenty percent (20%) (113 of 550) of all newly elected members of Congress had not held any previous elective office. Additionally, twenty five percent (25%) had lost a previous congressional election and fifty six percent (56%) beat an incumbent (Banks & Kiewiet, 1989). The likelihood of defeating an incumbent increases the less impressive the challenger's previous office. (Green & Krasno, 1990) This suggests that running against an incumbent can be successful, with the right situation, even for someone without previous experience in winning an elective office. Strategies, like timing and GOTV, can be designed to surprise lethargic incumbents who do not think they are in trouble or that they have a serious challenger.

Second area identified that can increase success is found by challenging an incumbent with low approval/polling numbers. In Molyneux's (2004) article “The Big Five-Oh” he describes a phenomenon the “incumbent 50-percent rule” (p.1). Answering the question “does he deserve re-election” in the negative describes incumbents under this rule (Molyneux, 2004, p.1). Looking at the polling numbers, and common sense, tells us that incumbents with approval under fifty percent (50%) or early polling with support under fifty percent (50%), reflects unhappiness with the incumbent. A challenger should not mistake this for a satisfaction with their campaign. Undecided status reflects not knowing enough about the challenger (Molyneux, 2004). Running against an incumbent with low polling numbers can increase the chances, but challengers do need to make sure that the voters know enough about them. Molyneux's (2004) look at presidential polling shows challengers get an increase from final poll results of an average of four percentage points (4%) (p. 1). Keep in mind that incumbents generally can outspend to offset any yield advantage challengers might have in campaign expenditures (Green & Krasno, 1990). So we must look at strategies that give the advantage to the challenger. For example using the comparative strategy might be an option for challengers in this situation.

Same day voter registration can increase voter turnout on election day. Voters in the middle of the socioeconomic spectrum turn out five percent (5%) higher in areas with election day voter registration rules than areas with 30-day advanced registration. This is marginally higher than the low and high socioeconomic spectrum (Brians & Grofman, 2001). Any group turning out in higher percentages on election day can be used as an advantage. With the voters being evenly divided in partisan elections, the timing of strategy could be used as an advantage by suppressing or increasing the number of registered voters. In many cases, voters are presented with positions and statements from candidates that deepen cynicism and discourage participation. With the elections being decided at the fifty percent (50%) mark, marginal voters matter (Schmitt, 2002). The opportunity as a challenger is to use voter registration in your strategy. Same day or advanced registration will present different strategy and tactic options.

While there may be many other ways to win as a challenger the forth, and last area of research is to run as a woman (if you are one of course) emphasizing women's issues. To get women voters to “more likely” vote for challenger candidates, they should accentuate compassion issues (Herrnson, Lay & Stokes, 2003). Stereotypes still play a role in this world and how voters view candidates is no exception. Women candidates are viewed sympathetic to compassion issues (Herrnson, Lay & Stokes, 2003). Before 1992, it was very common to find female candidates highlighting issues that were strongly identified by men as important (Herrnson, Lay & Stokes, 2003). After 1992, the “Year of the Woman”, female candidates were using feminine images (Herrnson, Lay & Stokes, 2003). Now women who use the tactics of women's issues and target thier message to social groups have an eleven percent (11%) probability of defeating the other candidate (Herrnson, Lay & Stokes, 2003). We also know that voters tend to remember the activities of a male candidate, and the appearance and family of female candidates (Herrnson, Lay & Stokes, 2003). By understanding the biases toward female, and male, candidates we can begin to form a strategy. The research on the success of women candidates points to practical things like appearance and messaging for future women candidates to use in their campaigns. So you might use a division strategy or tactics and message that focus on family and compassion issues if targeting women. Doing so will improve your prospects.

In conclusion, winning as a challenger against an incumbent is possible. Being a woman, and running on women's issues, increases the win probability by eleven percent (11%) (Herrnson, Lay & Stokes, 2003). Knowing the voter registration closing date increases or decreases turnout for certain members of socioeconomic spectrum should be incorporated into strategy planning process (Brians & Grofman, 2001). Maintaining undecided voters' awareness of the challenger will help in getting them to break for the challenger. If you have not held office before don't worry many successful challengers have won. Just be prepared sometimes you have to run against them more than once. From the research hope for the challenger lies in developing an understanding of strategy, planning the campaign strategy and using a variety of tactics to overcome incumbent advantages to win.


  • Banks, J.S., & Kiewiet, D.R. (1989). Explaining patterns of candidate competition in congressional elections. American Journal of Political Science, 33(4), 997-1015.
  • Bardwell, K. (2003). Not all Money is equal: the differential effect of spending by incumbents and challengers in gubernatorial primaries. State Politics & Policy Quarterly, 3(3), 294-308.
  • Brians, C.L., & Grofman, B. (2001). Election day registrations effect on u. s. Voter turnout. Social Science Quarterly, 82(1), 170-183.
  • Faucheux, R. (1997, December). Strategies that win!. [Electronic version] Campaign & Elections, 18(10), p24, 8p.
  • Green, D.P., & Krasno, J.S. (1990). Rebuttal to jacobson's "new evidence for old arguments". American Journal of Political Science, 34(2), 363-372.
  • Grey, L. (2007). How to win a local election, third edition. Lanham, MD: M. Evans.
  • Herrnson, P.S., Lay, J.C., & Stokes, A.K. (2003). Women running "as women": candidate gender, campaign issues, and voter-targeting strategies. The Journal of Politics, 65(1), 244-255.
  • Molyneux, G. (2004, October 01). The Big five-oh. Retrieved from
  • Schmitt, M. (2002). The Politics of reform in the fifty-fifty nation. National Civic Review, 91(4), 305-315.
  • Sweitzer, T. (1996, September). Kill or be killed. [Electronic version] Campaigns & Elections, 17(9), 46-47.
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