Waterloo Region Roundup: Four noteworthy races and other happenings

Written by: Kate Daley

In the dozens of seats up for grabs across Waterloo Region’s eight municipal councils and two school boards, there are four races that are especially worth noting.

1) Regional chair

The most notable race in Waterloo Region this election is the regional chair’s race, addressed in a previous post.

The regional chair race is the first without veteran chair Ken Seiling, who has served uninterrupted since 1985, and who has never been seriously challenged since the chair position first became elected in 1997.

The election for chair is the only region-wide race, requiring its candidates to campaign to more than half a million people in an area twice as large as the City of Toronto. As a result, it is also the race most likely to incentivise paid advertising and other high-cost campaign approaches. While Seiling’s campaigns were notoriously low key, his biggest challenger in the 2014 election reported spending more than $200,000. We can expect money to play a much more significant role in the regional chair’s race from this election forward.

A late-breaking poll with limited sample size suggests former MP and sitting regional councillor Karen Redman is leading by a considerable margin.

2) Cambridge mayor

Long-time mayor Doug Craig is being challenged by Kathryn McGarry, who until the provincial election was Liberal MPP for Cambridge and Minister of Transportation. Also in the race is Ben Tucci, former councillor, and two new entrants.

The three most well known candidates joined Steve Paikin recently on The Agenda.

Cambridge does not have a strong history of ejecting sitting mayors. Craig took over the post in 2000, when Mayor Jane Brewer chose not to run again. Brewer had held the post since 1988, following long-time mayor Claudette Millar. The three of them together have governed the City of Cambridge for all but 3 years of the city’s 45-year history.

3) Kitchener Regional council

While the mayors of the seven local-tier municipalities sit on regional council, eight additional members are directly elected in city-wide contests to represent the residents of those cities. (It’s worth noting that they do not represent the local-tier councils or municipalities.)

Waterloo and Cambridge both have two directly elected seats, and all four of those seats have their incumbents running.

In Kitchener, however, Redman’s run for regional chair leaves at least one seat that will not be filled by an incumbent among Kitchener’s four seats. Notable new contenders include Michael Harris, former MPP for Kitchener Conestoga who was denied his party’s nomination by new leader Doug Ford, and former school board trustee Ted Martin.

Arguably the most interesting candidate, however, is Fauzia Mazhar, a community builder whose impressive resume includes serving as a founder and chair of the Coalition of Muslim Women of KW. While the Women’s Municipal Campaign School, which Mazhar has helped organize, has made some progress in increasing women’s representation on our eight councils, councillors are still overwhelmingly white, despite Waterloo Region’s diverse population. A win for Mazhar would be a crucial accomplishment to address the exclusion of racialized citizens from our dozens of local council positions.

4) A surprising acclamation

In a truly surprising turn of events, one-term Mayor of Woolwich Sandy Shantz is acclaimed. No one stepped forward to challenge her. This is despite a small but vocal group who have been persistent in their pursuit of Shantz, including repeated attempts to have her removed from office.

Other items of note:

  • Premier Doug Ford’s musings that he will make changes to regional government structures have at least one incumbent council candidate advocating for Cambridge’s succession from the upper-tier Region of Waterloo. This call has been made by various Cambridge leaders during various regional reform debates going back decades.
  • The Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, led by former councillor Greg Durocher, initially chose to defend candidate interviews run by the chamber that focused on personal questions like whether candidates believe in a supreme being or were born in Canada. They quietly cut some of the questions from the interviews at release, citing length.
  • The Cambridge clerk is defending the city’s online voting system despite continuing concerns about its reliability. The system is being run by a third party contractor, and the online vote is proceeding despite the city having eliminated telephone voting on security grounds. Despite the clerk’s assertions about online voting being the same as online banking, online banking relies on all parties knowing what transactions customers have made, which cannot be replicated in voting by secret ballot.
  • The Township of North Dumfries has opted to eliminate in-person voting, and will replace polling stations with telephone and internet voting only.
  • While the mayors of Kitchener and Waterloo are both running again, Kitchener and Waterloo councils have 2 and 3 open seats, respectively, guaranteeing at least some turnover on their 11- and 8-member councils.

Kate Daley is an environmental professional and a graduate of York University’s PhD program in political science, where she studied transit, urban growth management, and regional government in the Waterloo area. She has managed two successful municipal campaigns, and participated in the organization of this year’s Women’s Municipal Campaign School in Waterloo Region. She is currently on parental leave with her family’s new baby.

Disclosure: The author’s spouse is a councillor representing the City of Waterloo’s Ward 6, and is currently running for re-election.

Niagara’s Unpredictable Election

Written by David Siegel

We’re deep into election season and so it is not surprising that many of the contributors to this blog are predicting who the next mayor or head of council in the blogger’s jurisdiction is likely to be. I will not be following that path.

This would have been the first time that Niagara chose its Regional Chair by popular election. However, the Ford government scuttled that, so we are back to a system of allowing councillors to select the Chair at the first meeting of council.

Even under normal circumstances, this would make it somewhat difficult to predict the next Chair, but these are far from normal circumstances. In normal circumstances, incumbents are highly likely to be re-elected as Michael McGregor has rightly pointed out elsewhere in this blog. My previous contribution detailed a serious issue hanging over incumbents that makes the normal pro forma re-election problematic.

I could mention a few other issues that I don’t have time to elaborate in full. The Police Services Board gave the police chief a three-year renewal of his contract and then almost immediately dismissed him without cause resulting in an $870,000 settlement. The Conservation Authority is under investigation by the Provincial Auditor for governance issues and operational practices. It has also been attacked for supporting a major development in an environmentally-sensitive area.

Not surprisingly, the major issue in this campaign can be summarized in one word— integrity. There has been very little discussion of lower taxes which has been a mainstay of previous campaigns. It seems like the current tribulations have attracted some good new people to run for office. Of course, many of them are inexperienced, although some have experience at other levels of government or in other environments.

In this environment, I can’t even predict who the next group of councillors will be, much less who they will pick as their chair.

The phrase about this being a watershed election that will determine how the jurisdiction will develop for future generations is much over-used, but this could be that kind of election for Niagara. The previous leadership of the Region has driven Niagara into the depths. This is a golden opportunity for a new broom to sweep into council and lead it into a new direction.

The extent of the change hinges on how attentive the electorate is. These issues have been much discussed in the print and social media. However, we start out with low voter turnout for local elections anyway, then we confront the fact that voters are generally less interested in regional elections than in the area municipalities that are closer to home. We can always hope that the situation at the Region is so bad that it will attract the attention of voters.

This is an opportunity for Niagara to turn a page. We shall see what happens next Monday.

Strategic Voting in Toronto 2014

Written by: Michael McGregor. Originally posted at CMES

Strategic (or tactical) voting, often a hot topic among voters and pundits during close election campaigns, is also a fertile topic in political science literature.  The three candidate race in the 2014 Toronto Mayoral contest was seemingly an ideal context for strategic voting to occur.  The candidate polling in second place (Doug Ford), was highly polarizing, and there was much discussion in the media about how Chow supporters might abandon her in favour of Tory, in order to prevent a Ford victory. Perhaps surprisingly, Toronto Election Study (TES) data reveal that rates of strategic voting were relatively low in this election, and such behaviour did not have a decisive impact upon the election outcome.  We suggest that the low rate of strategic voting is largely due to the fact that Chow supporters had unrealistic expectations about her chances of victory.

The Theory

A strategic vote is a vote for a party or candidate that is not one’s favourite, cast in the hope of affecting the outcome of an election (Blais et al., 2001).  More specifically, the goal of a strategic voter is to use his/her vote to prevent a party/candidate that is disliked from winning.  Such voters believe that their most preferred party/candidate has little or no chance of victory (so voting sincerely would have no effect on the outcome), and support the party/candidate that has the best chance of defeating their least preferred competitive option.

Strategic voting has been studied extensively at the federal and provincial levels in Canada and elsewhere.  One setting in which strategic voting has gone more or less unconsidered, however, is municipal elections, specifically those not contested by parties.  This is despite the large number of municipalities in Canada, the United States, and elsewhere in which political parties do not officially participate in elections. One might expect rates of strategic voting to be different in a setting where voters are not weighed down by the anchors of party loyalty and the knowledge of previous contests between parties.

The 2014 Toronto mayoral election furnishes an excellent opportunity to study this phenomenon. The performance of Toronto’s controversial and deeply-polarizing incumbent mayor, Rob Ford, may have prompted anti-Ford voters to consider carefully the prospect of voting strategically for the candidate that has the best chance of defeat his brother, Doug.

In this post, we calculate the rate of strategic voting in the 2014 Toronto mayoral contest. In line with the classic approach to identifying strategic voters, we use what Blais et al. (2005) refer to as the “direct” method of measurement, which employs measures of candidate rankings, perceived competitiveness, and vote choice. Voters are categorized as strategic if they meet two criteria. First, their most preferred candidate must be seen as least competitive of the three major candidates. Second, these individuals must vote for their second preferred candidate.

We then consider whether the rate of strategic voting was sufficient to overcome John Tory’s margin of victory. Tory won 40.3% of the popular vote, Doug Ford received the support of 33.7% of voters, while Olivia Chow came in third, with 23.2% support. Tory’s margin of victory was therefore 6.6%, meaning that at least that much strategic voting must have occurred in order for it to have impacted the outcome of the election.

The Data

Most polls in the days and weeks leading up to election showed Tory and Ford as the clear front-runners, and much of the discussion in the media was about how Chow supporters might abandon her in favour of Tory, to prevent a Ford victory.  TES data suggest that this discussion may have been warranted. In the pre-election wave of the TES, respondents were asked to estimate the chances of each candidate winning the election, as well as to rate each candidate (both on a scale from 0 to 100).  The following figure shows the average values for responses to these questions for each candidate, among voters.

 Candidate Ratings and Evaluations of Competitiveness


On the whole, voters saw Chow as the least competitive of the three major candidates, giving her a 34.8% chance of winning the election. Tory was seen as the most competitive, with a 69.1% chance of victory, while Ford was in the middle, at 42.1%. Not surprisingly, the candidate seen as most competitive also received the highest rating from voters; Tory had an average rating of 60.4. However, though Chow was seen as the least likely to win the election, she did not receive the lowest rating (47.2). This distinction belongs to Ford, who received a an average score of only 35.5. TES data therefore confirm media speculation that this election was a case where one might expect to see strategic voting, particularly among Chow supporters. Though Chow was the second most popular, she was also seen as the least competitive. If voters did indeed see Tory as the best option for defeating Ford, Chow supporters might reasonably have decided to opt to support him, instead of their most preferred candidate.

Despite the fact that this election seems ripe for strategic voting, the estimated rate of such behaviour, according to the procedure outlined above, is a mere 1.3%.  This value is considerably lower than estimates calculated for federal and provincial elections (according to Blais (2002, 445), rates of strategic voting in such settings are “typically around 5 percent”). Nonetheless, John Tory was, as expected, the largest beneficiary of strategic voting, receiving 81.1% of such votes. Ford and Chow received some support from strategic voters, but captured only 15.9% and 3.2% of strategic votes, respectively.

The 1.3% of ballots cast strategically were obviously not enough to overcome Tory’s 6.6 point margin of victory. Strategic voting therefore did not have an effect upon the outcome of the election.

So why was strategic voting so uncommon? The reason appears to stem from the fact that many survey respondents had a poor understanding of how competitive their most preferred candidates were.  A mere 5.2% of voters saw their preferred candidate as the least competitive. Blais (2002) has identified a misunderstanding of competitive circumstances as an important reason why rates of strategic voting are not higher in national elections, and we find the same pattern in Toronto 2014. The following table shows how competitive each candidate was perceived to be by those voters who ranked them as first, second or third preferences.

Candidate Ranking and Perceived Competitiveness

Most preferred candidate
Ford Chow Tory
Chances of winning Ford 71.5% 32.1% 32.4%
Chow 26.7% 53.5% 31.9%
Tory 57.1% 60.7% 78.6%
N 344 300 747

These data provide compelling evidence that candidate preference was strongly related to perceived competitiveness. While Chow supporters did not see her as having the best chance of winning, on average, they did believe that she was more likely to win than Ford (despite the fact that polls had indicated as much for the last several months of the election campaign). Similarly, Ford supporters believed that he was the most competitive of the three candidates. Voters cannot be expected to abandon their first preference for strategic reasons if they do not believe that candidate is uncompetitive, and the failure of Chow supporters to recognize this, in particular, seems to have contributed to a very low rate of strategic voting in the 2014 Toronto mayoral election.

Municipal Election Update: London

Written by: Andrew Sancton

A recent (October 10) letter to The London Free Press summed up the most interesting features of the local municipal election.

“London needs a mayor who will shut down the BRT [Bus Rapid Transit] plan that will be out of date before it is finished. If Londoners rank BRT opponents Paul Cheng, Ed Holder, and Paul Paolatto in any order as their top three, we will be certain to have a mayor who is against it. I did not think I would be thankful for ranked balloting, but I am.”

The letter is so informative because the writer

1. Assumes a mayor can unilaterally “shut down” a project that the council has already agreed to. Many voters seem implicitly to hold this view. The reality, of course, is that only the council as a whole can reverse the decision. If incumbent councillors are reelected, the BRT will probably survive, regardless of who is mayor, although it is important to remember that Rob Ford’s election in Toronto in 2010 seemed magically to change incumbent councillors’ minds about the relative merits of Light Rail Transit and heavy-rail subways.

2. Reflects a common view that the BRT is the major electoral issue. There is considerable controversy, however, about the possible existence of pro and con “slates”. Pro-BRT council candidates, especially incumbents, seem to hope that the BRT issue will simply go away because its fate has apparently already been decided by the current council. Most challengers are anti-BRT. They seem to think they can use federal and provincial funds dedicated to major transit infrastructure for just about anything they fancy. There is no overt sign of anti-BRT co-ordination but there is a group (or groups) that have paid for generic anti-BRT signage.

3. Correctly notes that the new ranked balloting system should aid anti-BRT forces, especially in the mayoral race. If voters understand the respective positions of the various candidates (admittedly a big “if”), they can use their ballots as the writer suggests: load up their choices with candidates who support their own BRT position. The mayoral race is particularly affected by ranked balloting because the only serious pro-BRT candidate is Tanya Park, who is also the only one to have ever served on municipal council. What will her supporters do with their second- and third-choice votes? A recent (October 12) Free Press poll suggests that all four major mayoral candidates have roughly equal support, providing a truly remarkable test for London’s first ranked ballot election.

4. Acknowledges that it is the BRT issue that has converted the letter-writer to the virtues of ranked balloting. Generally speaking, people who don’t like the BRT don’t like change– and ranked balloting is certainly a change. Many candidates and voters seem flummoxed by ranked balloting. At a recent all-candidates meeting a candidate was asked whom he would support as a second-choice to himself. His response was that he wanted voters to choose him as their first, second, and third choices. Fortunately, the city clerk has weighed in by stating that voters who follow such advice will only have their vote counted once: for their first-choice candidate.

We can only hope that in the ten days remaining in the election, we shall learn a bit more about what is actually going on in voters’ minds. Local media coverage is limited by the ongoing media cuts with which we are all familiar. Even informed local blogging seems to have disappeared. Instead, we get fake websites designed to confuse voters about what certain council candidates (namely two incumbent women councillors) really stand for. It is not a happy situation for those of us concerned with the health of local democracy.

Ranked balloting will probably mean that election results will be slow to emerge on the evening of October 22. The bad news is that the drama of election night will likely be reduced. The good news is that analysts of local voting behaviour will have a new treasure trove of data. How many voters will make use of all of their three choices? Will voters make more use of ranking on their mayoral ballots than on councillor ones? The Free Press letter-writer suggests that BRT preferences of candidates will be the dominant factor affecting ranking. Will he be right?

Pro-BRT incumbent councillors are generally the same people who supported the introduction of ranked balloting. How ironic it will be if their support of ranked balloting helps defeat the BRT.

The Economy and Vote Choice in the 2014 Toronto Municipal Election

Written by: Michael McGregor. Originally posted at CMES

The direction of the economy is generally one of the best predictors of vote choice in Federal and Provincial elections.  Little is known, however, about the the impact of this variable at the municipal level.  Toronto Election Study (TES) data reveal that economic evaluations had a significant impact upon mayoral vote choice, but no effect upon ward races, in the 2014 Toronto Municipal election.  Such a finding is perhaps surprising given Toronto’s ‘weak mayor’ system and the limited capacity for Canadian municipalities to influence the economy. 

The Theory

Economic conditions are known to influence electoral outcomes, in that incumbents are more likely to win re-election when the economy is doing well.  The state of the economy is consistently one of the best predictors of vote choice, and the literature on economic voting at the national and provincial levels in Canada is both broad and deep.  However, few scholars have examined the relationship between perceptions of economic conditions and electoral choice at the municipal level.  Do voters hold incumbent mayors or councillors responsible for the direction of a city’s economy? 

The TES allows us to consider this question in the case of the 2014 Toronto election.  The survey included the following question:  Over the last year, has Toronto’s economy gotten better, gotten worse, or stayed about the same?  We can compare the responses to this question to respondents’ vote choice to determine if voters held incumbents responsible for the direction of the economy.

There is good reason to expect voters not to attributed responsibility for the economy to municipal politicians.  Municipal governments have far less independent authority than the Federal and Provincial governments. Comparatively speaking, the financial tools available to local government are severely limited, and their power is highly constrained by the provincial governments that create and ultimately control them.  Municipalities therefore have little, if any, ability to stimulate their own economy, and most certainly their influence is dwarfed by both the federal and provincial orders of government.

One might also reason that the structure of Toronto’s government should make it unlikely that voters will attribute responsibility for the economy to the mayor. Toronto’s mayor is institutionally weak when compared to many American cities and some Canadian ones (e.g. Vancouver, Montreal, and Winnipeg), and certainly compared to provincial premiers or the prime minister. While elected at large, the mayor counts as only one vote on City Council, and is constantly at the mercy of ever-fluid coalitions of ward councillors.  Although the mayor is the only elected official in the city that can claim to represent the city as whole, in practice City Council holds most of the authority in Toronto.

This ‘weak mayor’ system, coupled with the limited policy making capacity of municipalities, suggests that voters Toronto might be expected assign little responsibility for economic conditions to an incumbent mayor.  The situation is similar for individual councillors.  Each councillor has but one vote on a 45-member council (44 councillors plus the mayor, under the 2014 ward boundary scheme), and without political parties that might structure voting blocs, it is difficult to attribute responsibility for decisions without undertaking a full review of each vote cast. As a result, the institutional structure in Toronto may be undermining the impact of economic conditions on voting for incumbents (mayoral or council).

The Data

Before describing our findings, we should note that retrospective economic evaluations are theoretically only relevant if an incumbent candidate or party is present, and it is our position that Doug Ford (who replaced his ailing brother on the ballot on the date of the nomination deadline) can be viewed as a de factoincumbent.  Respondents were asked how similar they believed Doug’s policies were to those of Rob, 85.6% thought the brothers’ policies were ‘all’ or ‘mostly’ the same, 10.6% did not know, while only 3.8% were of the opinion that the platforms of the two brothers were either mostly or all different.  We omit those respondents who believed the policies of the brothers were either mostly or all different and those answered “don’t know” from our analysis of mayoral vote choice and assume that, for all remaining respondents, Doug can be considered the de facto incumbent.  At the ward level we have no such issue, as incumbents were present in 37 of 44 wards; we limit this part of our analysis to these wards only.

So what do TES data say?  Our analysis reveals, perhaps surprisingly, that economic voting was indeed a factor in the 2014 Toronto election, though only at the mayoral level.  At the ward level, we find no evidence that the economy had a significant effect upon incumbent support for incumbent councillors.  In the mayoral election, however, Doug Ford received a boost of 5 percentage points if voters believed the city’s economy had improved in the last year, as compared to those individuals who believed the economy had worsened.  Despite the good reasons to expect economic voting to not be present in the Toronto municipal election, therefore, perceptions of the direction of the economy did affect support for Doug Ford.

So what might account for this potentially surprising finding?  We can see two potential explanations.  First, Toronto’s non-partisan system may lead voters to search for alternative informational cues to simplify their vote decisions.  They may turn to the economy as a shortcut, despite the many reasons why economic considerations should not factor into municipal vote decisions.  Alternatively, it could be that political rhetoric is such that voters are led to make incorrect links between the economy and the government/mayor’s effect.  In other words, it may be the perception of a politician’s economic impact, rather than the objective truth, that matters for vote choice.  The side that does the best job of arguing its economic impact stands to benefit from an issue that should arguably not factor into mayoral election outcomes.  Indeed, Rob Ford claimed in the months leading up to the election that he “transformed Toronto into an economic powerhouse” (Gee, 2013).  Such specious claims are hardly beneficial for political accountability through realistic economic voting.

2018 Winnipeg Municipal Election Update

Written by: Aaron Moore

With only a few weeks left until the 2018 Winnipeg Municipal Election, it seems all but certain that incumbent Mayor Brian Bowman will be re-elected. With only one challenger of note, whose support is largely confined to right-wing suburban voters, and no left-wing challenger, the centre-right Mayor should easily coast to victory. By adopting a low-key campaign and refusing to engage his main rival, Jenny Motkulok, in a one-on-one debate, the mayor is steering away from any hot-button issues that could derail his re-election bid.

As a result of the mayor’s muted campaign and lack of any major challengers, Winnipeg voters appear to be tuning out of the election. Turnout this October could be well below the high of 50% in 2014, when a number of strong candidates, including the mayor, former MLA and MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis, and current MP Robert Falcon Ouellette, ran in absence of an incumbent. The lack of any important defining issue so far in the campaign could also keep voters away from the polls.

So far, the one issue dominating the election has been the question of whether the city should open the intersection of Portage and Main to pedestrians. The Mayor made a pledge to open the intersection in his 2014 campaign, but was unable to realise his plan during his first term of office, leaving him open to attacks from Jenny Motkulok and his opponents on council, who argue that opening the intersection will increase gridlock in the downtown and cause safety issues. In a risky bid to limit this avenue of attack, the Mayor agreed to support a non-bidding referendum on this issue in the upcoming election. This will be the first referendum held in the city in over two decades, and may drive some ardent supports in favour of opening the intersection to the polls (where they face an uphill battle). However, a probe poll conducted at the end of August found that 76 percent of respondents were already “… tired of hearing about Portage & Main.” While Winnipeg’s news media have tried to made Portage and Main the defining issue of this election, it is clearly not a primary concern for many voters.

Despite the general malaise currently gripping the electorate in Winnipeg, the outcome of council elections could significantly shake-up city hall and negatively impact the Mayor. Winnipeg’s mayor appoints councillors to serve as chairs of standing committees and to serve on an Executive Policy Committee (EPC) that oversees the budget and determines the general policy direction of the city. The committee comprises the mayor and 6 councillors, or roughly 43 percent of the vote on the 15 seat council (plus the mayor). Over his first term in office, Bowman has relied heavily on members of the EPC, and two additional councillors (known as the EPC plus two), to push much of his agenda through council. This election could result in a significant shift on council, making it increasingly difficult for the Mayor to find reliable allies to support his agenda.

Three of Bowman’s closest allies through his first term in office are not seeking re-election this fall. And their replacements are not guaranteed to be supportive of the mayor. In total, 5 of 15 wards have no incumbent running. In addition, due to recent changes to the city’s ward boundaries, a close ally of the mayor, and the city’s current Finance Committee Chair, Scott Gillingham, is now facing-off against fellow incumbent Sean Dobson, a strong opponent of the mayor, in the newly created ward of St. James. While Brian Bowman should easily win reelection—barring any significant event occurring in the next few weeks, the outcome of the council race could affect his capacity to govern for the next four years.

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.