The Size and Sources of Municipal Incumbency Advantage in Canada

By Jack Lucas (University of Calgary)

Incumbent candidates who seek re-election in Canadian cities almost always win: in many cities, incumbent re-election rates approach or exceed 90 percent. These stratospheric re-election rates are often interpreted as a sign of serious unfairness in Canadian municipal elections. Reforms ranging from stricter campaign finance rules to term limits to political parties have been suggested as possible solutions to the unfairness of incumbent electoral success.

The problem with these suggestions, as a well-established literature in American politics has argued for decades, is that incumbent success does not necessarily require incumbency advantage; we cannot know from incumbent re-election rates alone that incumbency itself increases a candidate’s probability of re-election. Other factors, from a candidate’s personal qualities to the partisan composition of an electoral district, may produce consistent incumbent re-election even in the absence of incumbency advantage. To understand how incumbency affects municipal election outcomes, we need to separate incumbency advantage from incumbent success.

My article in Urban Affairs Review, entitled “The Size and Sources of Municipal Incumbency Advantage in Canada,” uses a well-established strategy known as “regression discontinuity” to estimate the size of incumbency advantage in Canada for the first time. Using a new dataset of nearly 2,000 municipal elections from 1874-2018 from the cities of Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, and Toronto, I find that incumbency increases the probability that a candidate will win the next election by nearly thirty percentage points – and more than forty percentage points in the modern period. This is an extraordinarily large effect, suggesting that well over half of incumbent success is due to the incumbency advantage alone.

Having identified the size of incumbency advantage in Canadian cities, I then discuss a few features of city elections that may increase or decrease incumbency advantage. I find that incumbency advantage may be somewhat smaller in at-large elections than in ward elections and in council elections when compared with mayoral races. I also find much clearer evidence that incumbency advantage declined during periods when the cities in my dataset had partisan elections. These findings help us understand the sources of incumbency advantage in city elections, and they will (I hope!) serve as a solid foundation for future research on incumbent success in cities in Canada, the United States, and other countries. 

Read the UAR article here.

Photo of Calgary, Canada by Kyler Nixon on Unsplash

Author Biography

Jack Lucas is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary. His research is focused on urban democracy and urban political development in Canada. He is the author of Fields of Authority: Special Purpose Governance in Ontario, 1815-2015, published by University of Toronto Press, as well as recent articles in Canadian Journal of Political Science, Urban Affairs Review, and Canadian Public Administration.