Neutralizing the power of incumbency

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“It’s hard to beat an incumbent.”

There is a lot of conventional wisdom in Canadian politics, but this axiom sure seems truer than most, especially after Ontario’s municipal elections.

I was pleased to advise ten candidates all across the province, from City Council candidates in Toronto to small-town mayors.

We won in seven of those races — in several cases overwhelmingly — and won “moral victories” in two others, where the candidate placed higher up the ballot than he or she expected when we began our work, and felt they held their heads high by advancing their policy agenda and shaping their community’s dialogue.

In the case of the three races where we came up short, it was because we were pushing up against a solid wall of incumbency.

This is not to excuse or bemoan those losses; there are no doubt multiple reasons why that occurred.

It’s simply to illustrate that, across the province, incumbents won.

Indeed, there are countless examples where incumbents pulled off upsets, fending off well-organised opponents.

Where an incumbent lost, it was to a popular, long-time member of the Council or else a popular, recently defeated MPP or MP (think Cambridge or Eglinton—Lawrence).

There are a variety of reasons for the “incumbency advantage”; for four years or more, the incumbent gets his or her name in the paper, oftentimes has an office budget and staff with which to send out community newsletters or host town halls, and the incumbent makes it his or her full-time job to be out and about in the community, whereas the opponent has a day job.

But it’s more than just structural advantages.  We also are biased to incumbents.  Particularly in Toronto, as incumbents were forced to go head to head, the media was set on covering races through the “battle of the titans” lens, and challengers were largely swept aside.

As an example, at one point during the election, I was on the line with a reporter who had written up a short story about polling in ward races.  Except for one problem: the pollster only named the incumbents, leaving the mass grouping of “Other Candidates” as a third of the vote share.  Come election day, that “Other Candidates” turned out not to be a blob of also rans polling collectively at 30%, but rather it had coalesced around one other candidate, as I had argued would happen.  In other words, the story was about a two-horse race when it was really a three-horse race.  It’s impossible to say what effect, if any, the coverage had in shaping the race.

Ultimately, incumbency, we can all agree, is both a structural and a perception advantage.

So, what’s to be done?

A few ideas:

Some might point to ranked ballots, allowing the displeasure at an incumbent to coalesce behind a challenger on the third or fourth ballot, rather than being dispersed into smaller, ineffective chunks in our First Past the Post system.  London’s experiment with ranked ballots was intriguing, but it was not necessarily a panacea against incumbency.  Perhaps time will tell differently.

As a campaign manager, I firmly believe we could do more to level the financial playing field.  Incumbents have years to curry favours and build up potential donor bases.  Challengers have to “build the plane as it’s on the runaway”.  While the province has tightened up rules around who may donate by banning union and corporate donations, there is still a patchwork of taxpayer subsidies in place.  In some municipalities, a donor gets back a certain percentage of their donation, like exists federally and provincially.  In some municipalities, however, this either does not exist or is a byzantine system that not even the campaign’s Chief Financial Officer is able to understand.  We could start by standardising donation financing.  This might help level the playing field.

There may also be a need to insist that pollsters do not artificially narrow the field: a pollster cannot make assumptions about who is or is not in the race before the poll.  Frankly, that defeats the purported claim to being scientific in the first place, and can hijack the narrative of the race.  Legislation should enforce some basic rules of the road for polling firms.

Finally, it is past time that we have a serious debate about term limits in Ontario.

None of these ideas are silver bullets, but having made some pretty significant changes in advance of (and during) the last municipal election, we should want to keep the momentum going to ensure we have the fairest and best possible races.

More from Jonathan Scott   @J_Scott_

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