Jun 01, 2018

In this leader-centric campaign season, does Incumbency still matter?

Authored by:

John Caldwell

John Caldwell

Voting against a competent Liberal incumbent because one disagrees with Wynne’s leadership is the political equivalent of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

The latest polls show that the desire for change has not dissipated at all since the start of the Ontario leader campaigns, and as a result Kathleen Wynne and the Ontario Liberals remain firmly in third place.

The ‘change’ that voters are demanding reflects a desire for fresh leadership in the Ontario government. However, for voters in Liberal strong-hold ridings who have grown to trust their local MPPs, this desire for leadership change may not be enough to convince them to vote against a familiar local face who has represented their interests for many years.

The incumbency advantage is a significant factor when it comes to campaigning, and this impact will likely go unnoticed until the final votes are counted on June 7th. This gives the Wynne-led Liberals hope and suggests that the momentum the NDP have gained in recent polls may not translate to a proportional amount of seats.

If Liberal-incumbent ridings retain a critical mass of Liberal support, this may benefit the PCs who stand alone as the preferred party for right-leaning voters and the left-leaning ‘change’ demographic who were initially open to voting PC. In other words, NDP momentum in the most recent polls may be all for naught if this support doesn’t translate to actual votes due to Liberal voters’ familiarity with their Liberal incumbents.

However, this scenario happens only if Liberal voters actually do prefer the competency of an incumbent over the allure of a new MPP that represents the ‘change’ alluded to in the latest polls. So the question remains: does incumbency really matter?

Predictably, the answer to this question depends on who you ask, and there are solid arguments on both sides.

Those who don’t believe incumbency will affect the outcome of this leadership tend to place more value in a party’s brand, which is by extension the brand of the leader. This ‘presidentialization’ of Canadian leadership is a noted trend in Canadian politics, where campaigning and governance is focused around a political leader rather than the merits and competence of the local candidates who the public ultimately votes for and interacts with.

A commercial where Doug Ford says he is “for the people,” or a twitter ad of Kathleen Wynne saying she is “sorry, not sorry” are both examples of leader-centric campaign messaging. The leader’s brand is the party’s brand. So, is the presidentialization of campaign messaging a good or a bad thing? Well, both. While a leader-centric approach devalues the role of strong MPPs, it is the leader who ultimately approves their party’s platform and chooses the Ministers who will fulfill their given mandates. Leaders outline the party’s vision, while MPPs make sure this vision is passed in the legislative chamber.

On the flip-side, this type of messaging hurts the chances of competent incumbent MPPs from getting re-elected when their leader has grown unpopular, as is the case of some Liberal MPPs under Wynne’s leadership. Campaign messaging convinces voters that their vote is directly tied to their support for a party’s leader, which is not necessarily the case. In reality, a voter can disagree with the leadership of a political party, but recognize that a local candidate from that same party represents their best interest. A qualified and experienced MPP can make all the difference in influencing a government’s legislative agenda, whereas an unqualified and inexperienced MPP is at best a cog in the machine of an agenda they’ve had no influence upon.

Only the final election results will tell if Ontarians think incumbency matters in this ‘change’-oriented election. On one hand, it may be the case that voters are willing to take a risk in voting out experienced and competent MPPs in favour of changing government leadership. On the other hand, the value of a trusted long-serving Liberal incumbent should not be underestimated.

While the polls have gone back and forth between the NDP and PCs in the lead, strong Liberal incumbents have the potential to throw a wrench into any anticipated results. In an election with many undecided voters it is not unreasonable to assume that many from this demographic will vote for the name they know and trust.

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