'Unparalleled' success rate: Edmonton incumbents strongly favoured to win re-election

Elections are uncertain by their nature, but Edmonton’s history says almost all of the councillors running for re-election this year will win again. 

Research shows that about 90 per cent of incumbents seeking re-election in Edmonton as mayor or councillor are returned to office. 

“Name recognition is the number one issue. It is dominant,” said outgoing Ward 6 Coun. Scott McKeen.

“If you're on council and you're in the news and you're in the newspaper, there's just a little bit of that starts to creep into people's minds, ‘Oh yeah, I know that name.’”

That familiarity is a part of why Edmonton incumbents have largely enjoyed a historical near-invincibility come election night, though the city’s overhauled wards could diminish that advantage this year.

Sixty-two out of 65 incumbents, or about 95 per cent, have been re-elected as mayor or councillor in Edmonton over the last seven elections going back to 1998. 

The most recent incumbent to be defeated was Ward 3 Coun. Dave Loken, who lost to Jon Dziadyk in 2017.

In 2007, Coun. Mike Nickel was defeated in Ward 5 by incumbent Bryan Anderson and future mayor Don Iveson. And, Mayor Bill Smith was defeated by challenger Stephen Mandel in the 2004 race. 

McKeen says the absence of parties in local elections makes a councillor’s personal brand and visibility more important. 

“It's hard for people to figure out who they want to vote for,” he said. “Provincial and federal elections give them that branding shortcut.”

University of Calgary political scientist Jack Lucas says the incumbency rate in big-city non-partisan municipal elections far outstrips that of provincial and federal elections.

“It’s a success rate that is unparalleled at any other level of government in Canada.”

INCUMBENCY ADVANTAGES

While important, name recognition isn’t the only decisive advantage incumbents enjoy. 

Lucas says it’s easy to forget that those who win elections were often simply superior candidates compared to others. 

“If somebody is an attractive enough candidate to win in the first place. They must have some qualities that make them appeal to the voters who elected them,” Lucas said, listing past experience, ideology or charisma as examples.

“There’s no reason to think those qualities would change over time.” 

Lucas also says simply being in office can be a cue to some voters. 

“Some proportion of voters are inclined to support the incumbent, just by virtue of that person being the incumbent,” said Lucas.

“All they need to know about you is that you're the incumbent and your probability of support goes up.”

Another factor, Lucas says, is that the presence of an incumbent is often enough to scare away qualified challengers who will often wait for an open race to put their name forward.

“They're not fools. They know there’s a 90 per cent incumbent success rate,” he said. 

“Why devote the resources, time, effort, blood sweat and tears to running for office if you think there’s just a vanishing chance of actually winning?”

'CAN BE VULNERABLE'

There is reason for optimism this year for Edmonton council challengers.

The city’s redrawn ward boundaries mean some incumbent councillors will be running in areas where their name isn’t as familiar to voters.

It’s a situation Coun. Tony Caterina faces after representing Ward 7 in northeast Edmonton, and choosing to run in the new downtown ward of O-day’min.

Similar ward boundary changes in Calgary’s 2017 municipal vote made those races more competitive, cutting the incumbency advantage by as much as 10 per cent, according to Lucas’ research.

“When they're suddenly faced with voters who don't know them … that’s a drawback for the incumbents that typically they wouldn’t have to deal with.”

One advantage challengers have is being able to criticize an incumbent’s time on council, and point to failures, shortcomings and missed promises as reasons for change.

“You have to defend your record,” said McKeen. “A newcomer can be on the attack and be a little bit vague on where they would stand on something.”

And, while incumbents have dominated election results, they can be beaten.

Six out of 11 incumbents were defeated in the 1995 election, including two-term Mayor Jan Reimer, three-term Alderman Bruce Campbell, and four-term Alderwoman Lillian Staroszik.

“Incumbents can be vulnerable,” said McKeen.

“If they take their eye off the ball, if they're not serving their community, or are seen to be doing that, then they can be in trouble."