This year, I’ve been managing my husband’s city council re-election campaign. So I’m starting to get some more insight into how running a campaign for an incumbent is different than running one for a new candidate. And though it may not be especially sexy, there are great reasons to help an incumbent in an Ontario municipal election over the next two weeks.
Don’t get me wrong. I know there are lots of great reasons to help a new candidate running for an open seat, too, having done it in 2010. Races for open seats are often hotly contested by a number of strong and dedicated candidates. There’s less familiarity among voters with any of the possibilities, so people tend to be more engaged at their doors and at debates. And whatever the result is, it’s likely to be hard fought and difficult to predict. In short, there’s lots of unpredictability and excitement in a race for an open seat, and lots of people want to be a part of that.
There are lots of great reasons to help someone challenge an incumbent, too, particularly if that incumbent is someone whose record does not impress you. It’s a crucial part of the democratic process, and challenger candidates need strong volunteer support and financial resources to show a compelling alternative to the way things have been done by an incumbent. It can be exciting to put your time into challenging the status quo.
But incumbent campaigns tend not to have these features. Many incumbents have better name recognition than other candidates, and if they’re good at their jobs, they’ve had contact with many of their constituents over their term(s) of office. They usually know how to run a successful campaign, because they’ve done it before. And if they win, nothing changes: their constituents will have the same representative in December that they had in November.
So one might be excused for thinking that supporting incumbents is relatively boring. But there are exciting and important reasons to help an incumbent, too:
1) Helping government work better. For municipal candidates, elections are one of the best times to find out what your constituents actually think about what’s happening in your local government. Elected officials like my husband, Jeff, knock on doors between elections, too. It’s important because the people elected officials hear from most often are the ones who have specific issues and concerns in mind, and who take the time to participate. That process is crucial, too, but the emails and the meetings and the public information sessions tell you what the most engaged community members think. It’s hard to tell how reflective those viewpoints are of the people who participate. So door knocking helps incumbents to get feedback from different people, and elections are a focused time when residents expect it, and when incumbents can do it more systematically and efficiently, with the support of volunteers. It’s also important for residents; for many of them, this will be the only time they’ll ever have a conversation with someone who represents them. And while I’m all for finding new ways to encourage community members to be engaged between elections, I don’t think we can afford to lose opportunities like election door knocking for their voices to be heard by decision-makers.
2) Helping voters to see an incumbent’s value. Incumbents have something that other candidates don’t: a record. This is a double-edged sword for them.
On the one hand, if an incumbent is reasonably good at their job, voters have a good chance of knowing it. They have access to more reliable information by which to judge incumbents as a candidate. When new candidates run, they may make various kinds of promises. But it’s not until someone is elected and has a chance to fulfil them that community members can evaluate whether that person can be trusted to live up to those promises. So voters have both their words and actions. When one votes for an incumbent, one has a much better idea of what to expect. Voting for a new candidate is risky, insofar as they may be better than an incumbent, but they may be worse. This is an advantage for incumbents, particularly when voters either think highly of their work, or think that what’s been happening in the municipality is good enough.
On the other hand, re-election is the time when sitting elected officials are most pressured to defend their records. In this respect, new candidates have it easier. If an elected official has been in office for four years, s/he will have made decisions that will have angered or irritated someone, while new candidates tend to have a blank slate. It’s more work to put those decisions into the context of the complex pressures elected officials face, and to give people the information they need to evaluate those decisions effectively. Incumbents need your help to do that.
3) Helping to stop unforeseen negative outcomes. Anyone who has been working on elections for a while can tell you stories about incumbents whose re-elections were seen as sure things, but who ended up losing their seats, to everyone’s shock. While it’s true that incumbents have a variety of advantages, lots of incumbents lose, even when people don’t think they will. If you like an incumbent, don’t take her or his re-election for granted. Consider how you’d feel about one of the other candidates winning. And if that outcome concerns you, get out there and help.
4) Protecting important gains. If an incumbent has worked and fought for a decision or policy that you like, you need to defend it. If something’s important, there’s probably someone else out there who doesn’t like it. Challengers often rely on juicy and flashy promises to get noticed, and while some of those promises might be good, some might be unhelpful or even reckless. And without a strong campaign, an incumbent who has worked for your issues might lose to someone who will work against them. Making a donation or volunteering your time increases the chances of continuing down a policy path you care about.
5) Learning more about your local government. Because incumbents have records and experience, most of them know a lot more than the broader public about the complex problems that governments face. It’s harder to explain the various pressures, constraints, and priorities one has faced in making a decision than to talk about an issue in general. So it’s hard work for incumbents to engage voters on the issues that matter to them, and they need to knock on lots of doors with volunteers and spend some money on advertising and materials to do it. There’s a broad public interest in having incumbent candidates justify and explain their decisions during elections. It’s an important part of helping people get informed about how government works and what’s happening in their community.
And beyond public education, helping an incumbent is a great chance to learn more yourself about how local government works in your area. Knocking on doors with a candidate, you’ll probably get the chance to hear discussions between your candidate and voters. I’ve learned a lot about how the City of Waterloo works this way, and also about what various people in my community think about it. This is insight that I could never get from all the years of formal political science education I’ve had.
So with just 13 days between now and election day, take a couple of hours to help an incumbent you like, or make a small donation to their campaign. It may not be sexy, but it matters.