The BC election and home-team advantage

Paul Wells on the staying power of incumbents

Andy Clark/Reuters

Are we done being surprised by the staying power of incumbents yet?

The BC Liberals’ victory in yesterday’s election, which surprised me too, is only the latest example of an election where the incumbent fared substantially better than polls had predicted. The most recent Alberta, Ontario and even Quebec elections (where the opposition Parti Québécois still managed to win, but just barely over a Charest Liberal party most observers had given up for lost) are the other well-known examples. So, for that matter, was the 2011 federal election: My friends on the press bus spent the entire campaign trying to get Stephen Harper to play game theory about minority-Parliament coalition scenarios; he spent the campaign winning a majority.

Together, these and other election examples suggest a strong tendency in Canadian politics — more a rule of thumb than an iron law, but still: incumbency offers substantial advantages. “Don’t Switch Horses in Midstream” is an argument that makes sense, especially when the economy’s a bit weird and people aren’t feeling confident enough to do something cocky.

There are exceptions. The most recent I can think of is the sweeping defeat of Bernard Lord’s Conservatives in New Brunswick in 2006. But New Brunswick tends to change governments in polarity-reversing sweeps and has a long history of comfort with young new leaders. Besides, the economy was less unsettled in 2006. And of course, I’m not saying it’s impossible for incumbents to lose. A government in big trouble that seems intent on going down hard will, of course, do so.

But “incumbency,” understood as a level of voter trust that comes only through familiarity, is the least sexy and therefore the most underrated of political advantages. It saved Paul Martin against Stephen Harper in 2004. It saved Mike Harris against Dalton McGuinty in 1999. It saved Lucien Bouchard against Jean Charest in 1998. It saved Alison Redford against Danielle Smith in 2012. In the first three cases the chastened challenger stuck around, learned from error, ran again as a known quantity and won. We’ll see about the fourth.

This suggests political parties should think twice, and then think again, about ejecting leaders who’ve lost in their first election. (Unless they’re really embarrassingly routed. Paul Martin could conceivably have stuck around after 2006 and sought to turn Stephen Harper’s victory into a brief blip, but Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff lost too badly to hold on credibly to the leadership.) Viewed through the lens of incumbency, defeat is often simply part of the process of gathering voters’ trust, and of learning how not to campaign so you can do it differently next time.

It also suggests governing parties should not lightly replace their leaders. Political obsessives may be tired of old so-and-so, but voters do not turn towards politics for excitement. They hope to be able to ignore politics, and rarely mind a steady hand when politics becomes unavoidable. What’s interesting is that Clark and Redford won despite being first-time leaders. I think it has something to do with the relatively long lead time between their arrival as party leaders and their election tests; and much to do with the fact that both faced rookie opponents who, themselves, had accumulated no incumbency stock.

What are the implications for the next federal election? I note only that the Conservatives I follow on Twitter seem to be in excellent spirits this morning.


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