Incumbency and the Importance of Campaigns

In many settings, incumbents have a significant, often almost insurmountable advantage at election time. 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 during the campaign period.  Toronto Election Study data reveal that the presence of an incumbent councillor decreases voter attentiveness to ward elections.  Additionally, voters in wards with incumbents tend to make their decisions much earlier, and their preferences remain relatively stable.  These findings suggest that the impact 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, 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) that sought re-election to City Council. Of the re-elected incumbents, 67.6 percent of these incumbents won with a majority of the vote, and the average vote share of incumbents was 59.8 percent.

Incumbents have a significant edge when it comes to election campaigns—they have name recognition, track records to tout, prestige, and all of the trappings of office when they set 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 during the campaign period.  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 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 attention 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 reveal that voters are less attentive during the campaign period when an incumbent is present. Voters in wards without an incumbent reported an average attentiveness score of 6.2 (on a scale from 0 to 10). In wards with and 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, and the accompanying incumbency cue, leads to early vote decisions. At most, campaigns will serve to only affirm the choices of those who make an early vote decision that does not change.  At least, they have no effect at all on such voters.  Therefore, 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 determine this by comparing voter preferences at the time of the pre-election interview (T1) to post-election vote recall (T2), and grouping individuals according to the typology established above:  early deciders, late deciders, and switchers.

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

The above table shows clearly that residents in wards with incumbents are more likely to form early vote preferences than their counterparts in wards without incumbents. At the time of their pre-election TES interview, only 27.1% of voters in wards with incumbents were undecided (late deciders, in our typology), as compared to 39.8% in wards without an incumbent (this difference of 12.7 points is significant at p < 0.05).  Unsurprisingly, the majority (64.4%) of early deciders in wards with incumbents supported their current councillor.  Voters in incumbent wards were also less likely to be switchers, or change their vote preferences between questionnaire waves.  60.7% of voters in wards with incumbents displayed a stable vote intention 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).  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. In short, campaigns matter less in these settings, which means it is particularly difficult for challengers to attract the attention and support of voters, thus unseating an incumbent.  Such a finding adds further evidence of the advantages that incumbency brings.