One of the prevailing influences in any election is the advantage enjoyed by the incumbent candidate. An incumbent who has served a single term or more has significant name recognition amongst voters, and as a result, new challengers can often face an uphill battle.
Perhaps more than at any other level of government, the incumbent advantage in municipal politics can have huge ramifications on the outcome of the race. If you are a rookie candidate, it is important to understand why this challenge exists, and what you can do to overcome it.
One significant reason for the incumbent advantage could stem from the general lack of interest the general public has towards local government. Unfortunately, politics is rarely seen to be exciting by the vast majority of the public, and generally, in the absence of a major scandal, most tend to follow the mainstream media’s focus on Federal or Provincial matters before they think about local government. So, when it comes to picking a name on the ballot, a well-intending citizen might simply be more inclined to pick a name they recognize, over someone they have never heard of.
Another contributing factor may be the lack of branding associated with municipal candidates. At the federal and provincial level, the party system gives local candidates who might have very little name-recognition the help of a party machine and years of branding to help voters recognize what they generally stand for. Federally or provincially, as a voter, if I don’t know the candidate by name then I can determine my choice by party, party leader, and how I generally feel about that overall package leader/party/local candidate.
At the municipal level, the voter is left with a name and whatever information the candidates put out, giving a decided advantage to incumbents who actually have a public record to speak of. In this way, an incumbent who has been written up in the paper, or who has had their name out in your community circles for the past three to four years is more likely to be chosen over a lesser known candidate.
Hence the quote – “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right”. It is better to be known, for better or worse, then not at all in this business.
Historically, an incumbent’s advantage has been significant, so much so that many politically-experienced people who want to run municipally will not consider running against an incumbent. Instead, they may move to a ward which can assure them an “open” race or wait out a run until a seat opens up.
Exceptions to the Rule
Now of course, as always, there are exceptions. Notoriety can be good, but too many negatives can catch up with an incumbent. Perhaps the incumbent has had some serious scandals, or has under-performed to the degree that it has seriously harmed their reputation. All this is to say that, if there is an opportunity for you to position yourself as the candidate who will bring “positive change” to the electorate over an incumbent that may have worn out his/her welcome, your chances of victory should improve.