Locality vs. 'celebrity': Candidates face uphill battle against incumbents
By Rebecca Lindell, Postmedia News April 13, 2011
Liberal candidate Anita Vandenbeld started shaking hands in her Ottawa riding months before an election was called, knowing she would face an uphill battle against Conservative incumbent John Baird.
"I've been working on this campaign full-time since I got nominated in November. I've been going door-to-door almost every day and what I am finding is that a lot of people are saying that John Baird may have a high profile, but he hasn't been present in the riding," she said.
Still, history suggests that candidates running for re-election, like Tory heavyweight Baird, have the upper hand.
Baird has held the riding of Ottawa West-Nepean since 2006 and, along with it, high-ranking positions in the Harper government, including government House leader, transport minister and environment minister. He was a member of Ontario's provincial parliament for a decade before that.
Eighty-eight per cent of the incumbents who ran in 2008 kept their seats — a statistic that was 86 per cent in 2006 and 83 per cent in 2004.
It had jumped to 91 per cent in 2000.
Vandenbeld won't be the only parliamentary hopeful up against an incumbent: While Elections Canada won't have an official candidate list ready until mid-April, so far only 20 of 308 ridings will be incumbent-free in 2011.
"Where you've got an MP who's been around for any number of years, certainly they have an advantage in that their name is out there," said Munroe Eagles, a Canadian professor of political science at the State University of New York. "They are like local celebrities."
But he added that the local campaign, while important, is only part of a national one.
That national campaign has a bigger impact on local voting patterns than incumbency or a specific candidate, according to Barry Kay, of the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy.
"Incumbency isn't the reason why we are seeing so many incumbents re-elected," he said. "I think what we are seeing are voting patterns that aren't switching much from the year before."
Kay said only five per cent of the vote comes down to local factors; For that reason, political futures aren't defined by individual candidates as much as they are by parties.
"The way most Canadians vote has nothing to do with their local candidate. They vote because they like Harper or they don't like Harper. They like Ignatieff or they don't."
That hypothesis explains why only 90 of 219 incumbents were re-elected in the 1993 election that saw the Conservatives obliterated by Jean Chretien's Liberal party.
Liberal candidate Allan Wise is using his party's national campaign to hammer out a victory locally in Winnipeg Centre.
Wise is attempting to unseat New Democrat incumbent Pat Martin, who was first elected in 1997.
"This is about getting rid of Mr. Harper," he said. "We are going to take that message home and make (voters) understand in order to get rid of Harper you have to vote Liberal."
But while unseating an incumbent is difficult, it is not impossible.
In 2008, New Democrat Linda Duncan beat sitting Conservative Rahim Jaffer in Edmonton-Strathcona, a seat Jaffer had held since 1997. And Liberal Anne McLellan, who served as deputy prime minister to Paul Martin, lost her seat in Edmonton Northwest to Conservative Laurie Hawn in 2006. The defeat came after McLellan won four elections by narrow margins.
"There aren't many safe seats in Canada. Many of them can move and many of them do move," Eagles said.
In Vancouver Centre, Adriane Carr is attempting to move one of those seats into the Green party camp.
Carr is on her second attempt to oust high-profile Liberal MP Hedy Fry, who was elected in 1993.
"No incumbent is immune from a best-before date," she said. "There are times when a riding decides there is a change in the tenor of politics and incumbents go."
Carr placed fourth in 2008 behind the Liberals, Conservatives and the NDP.
But with the Conservatives and New Democrats introducing new, relatively unknown candidates, Carr said she believes 2011 will be different.
"We've got two candidates in the Conservatives and the New Democrats who really haven't spent their time living, breathing and working in the community," she said. "That leaves the field to two contenders, Hedy and I."
The Green party is counting on upsetting an incumbent in at least one riding — Saanich-Gulf Islands — where party leader Elizabeth May is trying to unseat Conservative Gary Lunn.
Success for newcomers locally comes when a strong national campaign supports a high-profile, qualified candidate in the local riding, said Leslie Noble, a political consultant at Strategy Corp. "If you take a look at where there have big shifts in public opinion in an election, there's a lot to be said for coattails."
But incumbents shouldn't get too comfortable, warns Noble. They have to defend their record.
"If they haven't done a good job for their constituents over the four years they've been elected, that's going to be a problem," she said.
It's going to be a problem in Winnipeg Centre, according to Wise.
"All (Pat Martin) has done is brought forth a series of private members bills that have not made it anywhere, none of which have had any positive impact on the lives of Winnipeg Centre residents."
http://www.canada.com/news/Locality+cel ... story.html