The price of power

The “incumbent disadvantage” is at play in the tone of election coverage

A new Liberal ad presents a series of scandalous headlines. First, a story about Stephen Harper’s former adviser, Bruce Carson, complete with a photo of his ex-fiancée in pink lingerie. Next, a headline about Harper’s prorogation. And finally, an article referencing “possible jail time for Conservative senators.” That script must sound familiar to Harper’s 2006 campaign advisers. They ran a similar ad back then in which a man sitting at a coffee shop shakes his head at a newspaper headline: Martin Liberals took illicit cash. Then, more anti-Liberal headlines and more head shakes. Both ads end with the same conclusion—the incumbent can’t be trusted.

This “incumbent disadvantage” is at play in the tone of election coverage, says Stuart Soroka, the McGill political scientist who runs the 2011 Federal Election Newspaper Analysis (Maclean’s is publishing the results of the project each week of the campaign). “You can’t really assess an opposition’s record because they don’t really have one,” he says, “so we’re naturally harder on incumbents.”

Newspapers certainly are. That’s borne out in Soroka’s results from the first two weeks of this campaign, and the first two weeks of the 2006 campaign. Net tone is determined by reviewing the words in stories found near each leader’s name to determine how positively or negatively the leader is portrayed. A leader with a higher net tone one week is likely to enjoy a boost in the polls the next, says Soroka. For the first two weeks after the government fell in 2006, Harper’s Conservatives had the advantage. Their score was 1.38, compared to Paul Martin’s 0.79. Now, Michael Ignatieff leads with a score of 1.20, compared to Harper’s 0.80. “Ignatieff can still deal primarily in the hypothetical,” says Soroka.

But Soroka stresses that incumbents still have a countervailing advantage; many voters see them as “the safer option.” From Trudeau to Mulroney, that’s translated into re-elections, says Soroka. But those were majorities. If Martin’s 2006 campaign is any indication, Harper may have reason to worry. By week three of that campaign, Martin, like Harper today, still had a sizable lead in the polls. He just couldn’t hold on amid all the scrutiny.

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