Incumbency and the Importance of Campaigns

Written by: Michael McGregor. Originally posted on CMES

In many settings, incumbents have a significant, almost insurmountable advantage at election time. While there is a sizeable amount of research on the sources of incumbency advantage, little is known about how the presence of an incumbent affects voters during the campaign period.  2014 Toronto Election Study data reveal that when incumbent councillors contest a race, voters are less attentive to ward elections.  Additionally, voters in wards with incumbents tend to make their decisions much earlier, and their preferences remain relatively stable during the campaign period.  These findings suggest that the importance of campaigns depends heavily upon the presence of an incumbent.

The Theory

Incumbency has been long recognized as a major predictor of candidate success in US federal and state elections, though its effect is noticeably weaker in Canadian federal and provincial contests.  In both countries, however, the incumbency advantage tends to be particularly strong at the municipal level, to the extent that many studies have shown that incumbency is the strongest predictor of candidate success in local elections.  The results of council races in the 2014 Toronto Municipal election would seem to confirm this – voters returned 36 of the 37 incumbent councillors (97.3 percent) who sought re-election. 67.6 percent of victorious incumbents won with a majority of the vote, and their average vote share was 59.8 percent.

Incumbents have a significant edge in election campaigns—they have name recognition, track records to tout, prestige, and all of the trappings of office when setting out to court voters.  While there is a significant amount of research on the sources of incumbency advantage, little is known about how the presence of an incumbent affects voters.  Do voters in wards with an incumbent assume that the race is uncompetitive and simply tune out during a campaign?  In elections that many see as having low stakes and with limited availability of information, do voters simply choose the ‘devil that they know,’ saving themselves from the effort involved in paying attention during a campaign?  Does such a pattern lead to early vote decisions, and stable vote preference when an incumbent is present? 

The 2014 TES allows us to examine the effect of incumbency upon the importance of campaigns in two ways.  First, we compare voters in wards with an incumbent candidate to those without to test whether the presence of an incumbent leads to lower levels of attentiveness on the part of voters.  Second, we examine whether the presence of an incumbent influences the timing of vote decisions.  Early decisions indicate that the campaign had no influence on vote choice, and could also be taken as a sign of disengagement—all other things equal, voters who know long before an election for whom they will vote have less of a need to be attentive during the campaign than do undecided voters.  By considering how the presence of an incumbent affects campaign attentiveness and the timing of vote decisions, we address the effect of incumbency upon the importance of campaigns themselves.  

The Data

The first question we consider is whether the presence of an incumbent affects attentiveness. TES data do indeed reveal that voters are less attentive during the campaign period under such circumstances. Voters in wards without an incumbent reported an average attentiveness score of 6.2 (on a scale from 0 to 10). In wards with an incumbent the average attentiveness score was 5.8 (the difference is significant at p < 0.05). As a point of comparison, attention to the mayoral campaign, which is unlikely to be affected by a City Council incumbent, is not significantly different when an incumbent is present (average scores for this variable are 8.1 in wards without an incumbent and 8.0 with an incumbent). Assuming that incumbency influences attentiveness, rather than the reverse, these findings suggest that voters are more likely to tune out from council races if they live in a ward with an incumbent candidate.

We can also consider whether the presence of an incumbent leads to early vote decisions. More specifically, we are interested in determining whether there is evidence that, when there is no incumbent, voters wait to make their decisions until they have more campaign information. We do so by comparing voter preferences at the time of the TES pre-election interview (T1) to post-election vote recall (T2), and categorizing individuals as either early deciders (those who express the same preference in both survey waves), switchers (those who express different preferences in the two waves) and late deciders (those voters who express no preference in the pre-election survey). The results of this analysis are shown in the table below.


Wards without incumbent Wards with incumbent Difference
Stable preference from T1 to T2 (early decider) 46.3% 60.7% 14.4%
Change in preference from T1 to T2 (unstable) 13.9% 12.2% -1.7%
Undecided at T1 (late decider) 39.8% 27.1% -12.7%
N 231 1122

TES data reveal two findings of note. For starters, voters in incumbent wards are relatively likely to be early deciders. 60.7% of voters in these wards displayed a stable vote preference from T1 to T2, while the value is only 46.3% in wards without incumbents (this difference of 14.4 points is significant at p < 0.01).  Perhaps unsurprisingly, a sizable majority (64.4%) of early deciders in wards with incumbents voted their current councillor.  The second finding of note here is that voters in wards without incumbents are relatively likely to be late deciders. That is, nearly 4 in 10 voters in wards without an incumbent are undecided at T1, while this value is just 27% when an incumbent is present (this difference of 12.7 points is significant at p < 0.05).  The presence of an incumbent is therefore associated with early, stable vote decisions.

So what does all of this mean for the incumbency advantage?  In low information settings such as council races, voters in wards with an incumbent pay less attention during the campaign period, make earlier vote decisions, and tend to support the incumbent. Campaigns therefore seem to matter less in these scenarios, meaning that it is particularly difficult for challengers to attract the attention and support of voters necessary to unseat an incumbent.  Such a finding adds further evidence of the advantages that incumbency brings. 

We conclude here with a caveat. Given the recent and high-profile changes to Toronto’s ward system, the applicability of these findings to Toronto in 2018 is questionable. Still, there is no reason to expect that these patterns would not hold in other cities, where ward boundaries have not changed, including most of the cities included in the Canadian Municipal Election Study. Indeed, the CMES offers an invaluable opportunity to replicate the analysis above and to continue to improve our understanding of the power of incumbency in municipal elections.

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