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.



The BC election and home-team advantage

  1. Well said. Can we also say “woo hoo” ads work!

    • Right cuz reminding people day and night about an admittedly serious mistake a leader has made ( what 15 years ago) and both publicly apologized for, and suffered for professionally, is something to feel proud about isn’t it? How’d you feel if a flush Trudeau ran nothing but personalized AAs about SHs many decade old sins ad naseum…good probably?
      The negative stuff about the NDP was just par for the course – they had a record, one that was far more distant and hardly less slimy than the liberals or Clark’s; and they failed to defend it, or go after the liberals own record hard… . Boo boo, too bad for the dippers, their misjudgement really. Another lesson for strategists who feel you should run purely on the side of the angels … only do so if you really are a clean new slate.

      • You mean that the fed Liberals never did that?
        There is one issue in BC that gets people wound up. The pipeline.
        The Liberals were for it, the greens were against it, the NDP was all of the above. If you were against, you voted green, or more likely, didn’t vote.The NDP in BC are not the middling warm fuzzy Layton type.
        The NDP wins here when the center right coalition collapses.
        The conservatives got no support, so the Liberals won.

        • Did what? Run nothing but highly personal negative ads against Harper endlessly? No they didn’t actually. The kind of personal character assassination that Harper specializes in a la Ignatieff and Dion were not replicated by the LPC.[ although how much that’s because they were broke i can’t say]
          Now some moron is going to come along and say…guns in the street…guns in the street.

      • Dix admitted to the “deed” but he never offered to pay back the BC taxpayers the $70,000 he collected for severance pay.I never was “fired” but don’t think I would be rewarded for it like he was.

        • Exactly. A $70,000 payment in return for committing fraud. Nice payday. Adrian Dix is a proven fraudster. Deal with it.

  2. The implications are that Justin has likely taken note since Dix’s say-nothing approach on policy may have cost him an election. He’ll likely be more wary of polls and pollsters too.

    Not sure if we can blame the Greens for splitting the vote but we might have to be honest and admit some effect there. Or, we could venture that pollsters are not politically neutral and may have caused the NDP to relax too much going in to the election. The media bought their story. Or, pollsters need to hire better mathematicians, or be careful of Excel errors (like the Rogoff and Reinhart affair – an error propogated by Harvard Phds which led to austerity programs being implemented all over Europe):


    There’s also the effect of “personality politics” – focusing on the leader instead of the policies, with the peppy and upbeat lass preferred over the dour doomsayer.

    • What about blaming the Conservatives for not splitting more of the vote?

      • Once the HST was gone as an issue, that took the wind right out of the BC Conservatives’ sails. It was the HST which gave them life, and everyone who hated the HST got exactly what they wanted — it got scrapped. As of April 1st of this year, everyone in BC had tangible proof of that fact. The BC Cons had nothing to replace that as a vehicle for resentment, thus they withered.

  3. “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.”

    wiseGEEK – What Is Status Quo Bias?

    The status quo bias is a cognitive bias which leads people to prefer that things remain the same, or that things change as little as possible, if they absolutely must be altered. This cognitive bias plays a role in a number of fields, including economics, political science ….. Several other cognitive biases play into the status quo bias, including the concept of loss aversion. Most people prioritize avoiding the potential for loss over pursuing the potential for gain. In other words, as a general rule people are conservative because they do not want to lose the gains they have made.”


  4. Paul Wells is trying to find too may reasons as to why Clark won. It may seem that the reasons he mentions are valid ones, but I think that when people stand behind that curtain for privacy, they will more likely than not, vote for the leader who understands that the economy is number one in people’s minds.

    Dion and his Green Shift were solidly defeated by Canadians. Ignatieff was just visiting and could not convince Canadians that he understood Canada.

    We will see what Justin has to offer in the upcoming years. but please note: no matter how much the presses try to up-play Justin, and no matter how much the polls will try and flatter Justin, come election time, voters will look for competency.

    Dix didn’t offer competency. Even British Columbia voters know that jobs are needed and that taking a tiny fraction of wild life to build a pipeline is acceptable when thinking about that……standing behind that privacy curtain.

    • I’m not sure who is worse, the CPC shill up the page rejoicing that the wool could be pulled over Canadians eyes, or the guy here attempting to sell the idea the advertising wasn’t important and people actually evaluated policy.

      • Actually, if you prefer to keep your blinders on, and if that works for you, go right ahead. The voters don’t really care what you think. And for that matter, the voters don’t really care what pundits or pollsters have to say either.

        Behind that curtain for privacy, voters are honest with themselves. And that’s a good thing!

    • ” Even British Columbia voters know that jobs are needed and that taking a tiny fraction…”

      If by “British Columbians” you mean the 5% that voted for the only pro pipeline party, the Conservatives, then yes.

      • Yeah, BCers don’t give a fig about their coast…not when the economy is on the line. There’s good jobs to be had in clean up you know.

        • You’re a bitter moron Leftard, go suck up to Justin, he’ll lose too>

          • Bitter about what precisely? I don’t particularly care the ndp lost, i’m not a dipper. Clark maybe an idiot but even she knows the BC public doesn’t want tankers on the coast.
            I would probably have voted for them or the greens if i had a vote in order to have a better chance of keeping tankers off the north/central coast. Since i’m a federal Liberal i’m actually quite happy to see the ndp weakened in BC. Probably helps JT quite a bit.
            So who’s the moron here Bubba?

  5. I wonder if Libs are their own worst enemy – Libs seemingly think pols are close to being Godly while the rest of Canadians are slightly more cynical about abilities of pols and bureaucrats to alter conditions for the good. Libs are going through leaders like they are easily gotten rid off and replaced while Canadians are not likely to vote for newbies because they want to ‘know’ a leader before they vote for them.

    • And they want a leader to be competent.

  6. 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:

    Looks like a very small poll consisting of four data points to me.

  7. Granted incumbency is a huge ace in the back of the hand[mostly] And trust is huge, even tainted trust. Yet i wonder if there isn’t some other noxious ingedient in the witches brew that has to be there for an unpopular incumbent to succeed against the odds?Anyone who’s lived on the lower mainland or the Island for the last few years at least would have to be sleep walking not to know something of the contempt verging on open mockery with which Clark is held. Some of it down to GCs legacy, much of it down to her bungles.

    Yet she pulled it off. Clearly you can do it if you have the shamelessness er, moxie required to paint your opponent coal tar black day and night; but it also has to resonate somewhere with the public on some almost atavistic level. In BC it is fear of the socialist, the dreaded commie loving, tree hugging, veganistic, dope smoking[ actually that isn’t a minus ] tax grabbing lefties who want to see BC turned into one gigantic nature park – staffed by unions of course. Most of it silly, some of it true…but it is in the dna of BC voters And Clark had nothing to lose, so she flung the manure far and wide.
    Similar story in AB. Most ABs are still red tories at heart, and Redford succeeded in getting those old fears out in the open, with a little help from Wildrose. Only there it is fear of the extreme right…some old history there too.
    So incumbency is a huge advantage, even for an unpopular and ruthless leader, one who much of the public knows it should give the old bums rush…unless they can be made to fear the alternative more. I can see why the Harper wide boys are grinning over this. But if things stay much the same, they’ll need to raise some powerful boogie men to take down either Mulcair or JT. Drama queen ads wont do it, that’s for sure. Federally i wonder what might? Unfair or not, it’s tough to be a dipper right now. We all know they still keep shrines to che’ and Lenin hanging up in in the attic or under the stairs.
    Congrats Christy…doesn’t change a thing. You’re still a bloody fool in my book, and i think in that of many BCers. They were just more worried about the other guy., and you sure reminded em good. Pity it didn’t expunge any of your dreadful record, or make you competent…poor old BC. It is the real loser here again.

  8. Sometimes it is hard to see the tree for the forest especially here in BC :) – I think it is never a wise thing to run an election on the polling numbers and sit back and think that you can coast to an easy win becuase the numbers are so good – this will invariably be disastrous as it ignores the collective wisdom of the average canadian voter! Time and time again you see and hear this very same scenario play out – you can always tell the loser when they sit back and claim that they don’t believe in negative ad’s and that they are bringing a new style of campaign and they only want hope and change and are taking the high road etc etc etc. – the moment you see or hear that put your money on the other guy or gal! The average canadian doesn’t give a fig for popularity numbers as we all know that we have 2 types of leaders in canada (1) bonehaeds and (2) bast%rds – we get rid of the former a.s.a.p and invariably re-elect the latter – politics in canada is, has been and will always be a blood sport and if you show up for the fight you better be prepared to put the gloves on and duke it out otherwise you lose! I could tell at the debates that Dix wasn’t doing that well as Clark outplayed, outmanouvered and made him look like he didn’t want the job! This is why I think Trudeau is paying very close attention and is a meeting with his handlers as I type this – because if either Mulcair or Trudeau want to sit in the seat they have to turn up the heat on each other – we all know they hate harper nothing new there

    • Ignoring the wisdom of the average Canadian voter hasn’t let down harper yet. And I think you need to look up what “invariably” means.

      • What, give power to the liberals so they can conduct their power struggles while in government? Or try the NDP out, first time in power on the federal level?
        No one wins elections. You only lose. The NDP lost this one, and on the federal level both the libs and NDP lost. Harper hasn’t lost yet. He will at one point.

  9. Wells raises an interesting point but fails to discuss the obvious answer.

    Relatively few people polled indicated they would vote for Clark before the election. In the actual election, very few people did vote for Clark and she lost her seat.

    A large number of people voted for candidates affiliated with the Liberal party. Many of those candidates were incumbents and I suspect were well known locally and perhaps even respected.

    The obvious answer is that having a lot of incumbents running as representatives matters because those are the names on the ballots. This doesn’t really conflict with the idea that the majority of people vote for the party &/or leader. If only 10-20% vote based on the local representative then that is plenty to explain the results cited.

    • It would be sweet to see Clark lose yet again when she attempts it in order to get a seat in the house…never happen i suppose. If it did i might even believe the public knew exactly what it was doing. It kinda looks like it as it is.

    • This is a valid concern, but this effect should have been captured by the polling. Polling firms do not ask about vote intention with reference to party leader, they ask “which party would you vote for in your constituency.” They phrase the question this way for just the reason you bring up. Angus Reid actually was conducting polling later in the campaign where they put a mock ballot in front of voters with the actual candidates in their riding on it. These techniques, done properly, should mean that strong local candidates, incumbency effects, etc. should be accounted for (in aggregate – obviously something like Andrew Weaver’s win won’t likely be detected).

  10. “There are exceptions. The most recent I can think of is the sweeping
    defeat of Bernard Lord’s Conservatives in New Brunswick in 2006.”

    Just to clarify:

    In the 2006 election, the PC’s went from 28 to 26 seats, and the Liberals went from 26 to 29 seats. It was a clear win, with no third party winning anything, but it was hardly a sweeping defeat.

    By incumbency, I wonder if Mr. Wells means a government which has been in office for at least two terms? Otherwise, the better and more recent example would be the defeat of the Liberal government of Shawn Graham which, in the 2010 election, went from 29 to 13 seats, while the PC’s went from 26 to 42, making Shawn Graham the only premier of New Brunswick to lead a one-term government.

    • Well put Margery, and to further muddy up the analogy, in 2006 the PCs received 1,300 more votes (0.4% of the total) than the NB Grits. (In 2003 the PCs received 4,000 more votes, about 1%, than the Grits.)

      It seems Mr. Wells define “sweeping defeat” differently than the rest of Christendom.

  11. BC is once again a convincing argument for why most folks trust neither the media’s honesty nor its ethics. As you probably noticed election night, most of them were crying in their beer over having to admit they backed the wrong horse. Trudeau and the Liberals no doubt by now will have learned the obvious lesson that nice guys finish last and attack ads work. Layton and his dippers that no one is going to trust them with the economy and the taint of separatism on the party extends even to the west coast.
    That said the thing that gives one the most pleasure is to see the press, the pundits and the pollsters deeply embarassed once again.
    Life is good.

  12. LFV

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