Incumbency a tough thing to beat Incumbency a tough thing to beat
Mary-Margaret McMahon knows a thing or two about incumbency. The Beaches-East York councillor beat incumbent Sandra Bussin in the 2010 municipal election. This year,... Incumbency a tough thing to beat

Mary-Margaret McMahon knows a thing or two about incumbency.

The Beaches-East York councillor beat incumbent Sandra Bussin in the 2010 municipal election. This year, she easily held off her competitors to win re-election.

But McMahon is not completely in favour of the advantages she has as an incumbent.

‘‘I’m trying to fight for a more levelled playing field,’’ said McMahon. ‘‘I’m in favour of ranked ballots and term limits. I ran on a two-term limit myself. You need fresh energy and ideas and healthy turnover. Change is healthy.’’

In this year’s Toronto municipal election only one candidate managed to unseat an incumbent. In the 2010 municipal election, five challengers beat sitting councillors. With 44 wards in the city, these numbers show how difficult it is for a challenger to beat the person holding the seat going into an election.

The challenger who did what no else could was Jon Burnside who ran against incumbent John Parker in the Don Valley West riding. Burnside won the seat by over 3,000 votes. Four years ago, Parker, who was elected to council in 2006, beat Burnside by a mere 415 votes.

‘‘In my mind, it’s that ability to meet as many people as possible. I was able to knock on 75 per cent of the doors in the riding twice,’’ said Burnside.

But although Burnside managed to beat an incumbent, most candidates are not able to overcome the advantages incumbents have over their challengers.

‘‘I think the main thing is as an incumbent you have an advantage because you can brand yourself as the safest option. You would raise the cost to make it look more risky to take on another option,’’ said David Dunne, an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in political branding and advertising.

‘‘You can see that the Harper government is trying to do the same thing with Justin Trudeau trying to show him as young and inexperienced. So they say ‘stick with us because that is the safest option,’’’ said Dunne.

Incumbents enjoy several other advantages, too. They have name recognition, which is crucial in an electoral system where nobody is relying on a party, a greater relationship with the community and more chances to be covered by the media.

Another key advantage that can help incumbents is the fact that they have the ability to campaign while still on the job. Many of the challengers vying for a position at council must take time of their jobs to run their campaign and therefore miss a considerable amount of their income.

For the challengers, one of the biggest obstacles to overcome is name-recognition. One way to get past this is to previously have held office at another level of government. Another is to have worked in other visible positions such as in the media, said Dr. Erin Tolley, an assistant professor in political science at the University of Toronto.

Tolley also sees other obstacles for challengers who already are unrepresented in the electoral arenas, for example women and other visible minorities.

‘‘Community clout means that a candidate is a more known commodity and these challengers are more likely to be taken seriously. Because of this, the challengers who tend to be most successful are those who fit the mold of a traditional politician: middle-aged, white, able-bodied, heterosexual and male,’’ said Tolley.

Sitting councillors also have an easier time to mobilize voters due to their recognition in their respective communities, said Chris Irwin, a professor in political science at Humber College.

For a challenger to then break through can be even harder due to a completely different electoral battle taking place at the same time, Irwin said.

‘‘The mayor’s race takes up so much of the attention so the council races can become minor issues in people’s minds,’’ said Irwin.

In the 2010 election, Sarah Doucette beat incumbent Bill Saundercook by just over 2200 votes. In this year’s election, her first as an incumbent, the victory margin was 13,574 votes.

But despite all the advantages of being an incumbent, the Parkdale-High Park councillor said she had to put in a big effort to ensure re-election.

‘‘Yes, people know you as the incumbent. But some people don’t like what you’ve done. You must work hard. If you just sit in your office down at City Hall it won’t help you one iota,’’ said Doucette.

Adam Jonsson

Adam is a fourth year journalism student and freelance writer. He moved to Toronto from Sweden in 2011. Adam has also lived in New Zealand where his reporting on the Christchurch earthquake in February 2011 was picked up by Swedish media. Adam is a soccer and hockey fan and has a big interest in politics.