the time this article was written Alex Marland was a research analyst with Ekos
Research Associates Inc. This article is an extract from his M.A. thesis
submitted to the Department of Political Science at Memorial University,
wisdom holds that the key to re-election is to offer a range of constituency
services while in office, and then organize a formidable campaign team. During
campaigns, grassroots electoral operations (such as canvassing) attempt to
increase the local candidate or party vote share. After the contest, winners
are congratulated for a strong local campaign and for understanding the
electorate, while losers tend to attribute defeat to factors beyond their
control. This article examines the assumption that local electoral activities
are crucial to the result.
With an eye towards re-election,
incumbents maintain a range of constituency services although the types of
services range widely, and the extent to which they are offered differs
depending on the member.
Specific services include
addressing constituent correspondence, answering phone calls, scheduling
constituent appointments, writing for community newspapers, maintaining
constituency offices, attending ceremonial functions and constituency
gatherings, dealing with constituents' concerns (which often means directing
them to the proper official), distributing congratulatory letters, and
generally engaging in informal contacts with constituents. Because riding
population levels influence expectations, service provision ranges widely
between legislatures, political parties, and incumbents (regardless of party
Canadians' demand for their politicians to be loyal to their constituents has
helped produce incumbents who are frequently motivated by a desire to serve
Moreover, emphasis on constituency work comes naturally to MPs and provincial
politicians who typically have previously worked for a political party or have
been elected at the municipal level.3
Incumbents can be classified as
three types: “local representatives,” who represent local or regional
constituency interests and are locally involved in the constituency;
“partisans,” who promote party policies and the party leader; and
“legislators,” who emphasize policy work in Parliament.4 Although partisan
and legislator incumbents are less preoccupied with service provision than are
the “local representatives”, they do not ignore their constituents – all
incumbents maintain some level of constituent communication.
interaction may occur through “symbolic responsiveness” (communication through
newsletters, quarterly householders, and congratulatory messages), “policy
responsiveness” (attempts to represent the constituents' views and opinions),
“service responsiveness” (interception with bureaucrats to improve government),
or “allocative responsiveness” (lobbying for projects, grants or contracts for
To maintain communication, members must balance several constituent-focused
roles: the “case work” role (where staff obtain information for, and forward
the concerns of, constituents), the “constituency-based policy” role (where the
incumbent searches for constituency benefits in programs or legislation), the
“national policy concerns” role (where the member expresses the views of constituents
in policies), and the "social" role (where the incumbent attends
Why do elected representatives
offer such a wide range of services? Incumbents tend to believe that it is very
important in securing re-election. Multiple studies have found that Canadian
incumbents believe in their ability to shape voter support, and that the
importance of providing constituency services has been increasing over time.7 Recently, surveys
of MPs from the 34th and 35th Parliaments found that a majority believed that
their constituency work had the most influence on their re-election.8 These surveys
also indicated that Members of Parliament, particularly rural ones, and their
office staff devote many resources and over 40 percent of their working day to
constituency services. Cabinet members and more senior MPs tended to distance
themselves from constituency service provision.
What are the electoral benefits
of these services? There are indications that although the provision of
constituency services is not an essential component to re-election, it does
increase incumbents' re-election chances.9 Constituency services
likely do not sway non-supporters but they may maintain previous supporters and
those constituents who are satisfied with the service.10 Unless they wish
to face being voted out by those who are angered by inactive representation,
incumbents must provide a level of services expected by constituents.
Considering the resources and
effort that they require, the electoral benefits of constituency service
provision are certainly limited. In single-member plurality systems,
constituency services do not ensure re-election because party dominance
frequently limits the rewarding or punishment of incumbents. However,
incumbents are advised to provide constituency services if only to protect
themselves from unfavorable national electoral party waves.
The Electoral Benefits of
Although the ability to capitalize
on their condition differs, numerous electoral advantages exist for all
incumbents. In Canada, these benefits are believed to increase incumbents' vote
share between 3 and 14 percent.11
Incumbents are typically able to secure this advantage throughout their term in
Incumbents' electoral advantage
begins with their position as office-holders. This affords them the opportunity
to unofficially campaign by repeated exposure through newsletter and press
release distribution at constituents' expense. While in office, incumbents can
develop an understanding of riding issues and concerns, can better measure the
positions of interest groups, and receive briefings from experienced office staff.
They are able to establish contacts with voters, groups, reporters, and other
politicians (even potential opponents). They can contact constituents more
frequently through the use of free mailing and telephone, paid staff, and free
transportation. Moreover, incumbents are contacted by people who might not
otherwise become politically involved.
Further incumbency benefits
emerge during a re-election campaign. Incumbents can usually argue that they
are more qualified for the position, and can claim credit for riding projects.
As candidates who have already won an election, they are experienced
campaigners who have campaign teams familiar with issues and previous mistakes.
They are able to rely on proven strategies which facilitate even the most
elementary of decisions, such as which function to attend. Overall, they can
rely upon a “learning advantage,” where the experiences of winning an election
aids in re-election.12
Incumbents normally do not
have the disadvantage of having to run against an incumbent themselves.
The list of advantages over
challengers goes on and on. Name recognition is another benefit associated with
the position, but in Canada this is more advantageous in party nominations.13 There are other
- Incumbents generally do not face quality challengers,
because those candidates are scared off by incumbency. Moreover, an
incumbent is less likely to be challenged than a non-incumbent.
- Many voters in the riding support, or have considered
supporting, the political party of the incumbent.
- Incumbents belonging to the governing party enjoy
additional advantages because the government can manipulate the economy,
time elections to coincide with a prosperous economic climate, and can
manipulate the media so that government activity becomes political
More important than any single
advantage, the preeminent benefit of incumbents is their increased fundraising ability
and their access to capital. This is particularly noticeable because their
presence inhibits challengers' ability to fundraise (for this reason,
incumbents are wisest if they focus their fundraising efforts on challengers'
potential financial supporters). The relationship between spending and votes
creates a challengers' conundrum: although they need a currency advantage to
overcome their other disadvantages, challengers typically have less finances
Incumbents’ Likely Receive
More Personal Votes
Personal voting exists where a
candidate attracts a personal electoral advantage among select voters who vote
for the candidate as an individual. While a partisan electoral advantage
belongs to all candidates of the favored party, the personal vote is restricted
to the individual candidate. Because they endeavor to build personal votes by
utilizing their office resources and because they have already been elected,
incumbents have a significantly higher personal electoral advantage than challengers.
While this has been extensively documented in the United States, some recent
studies have determined that this is also true in Canada.
Docherty has found that personal
voting increases with the duration of incumbency. From 1980 to 1993, first-term
Canadian MPs attracted a personal vote of between 3.3 and 5.9 percent. This
increased among mature MPs (2 to 4 terms served), who attracted 3.7 to 8.8
percent, and veteran MPs (5 or more terms), who attracted 7.5 to 10.7 percent.14 While
“retirement slumps” (where there is a vote loss for parties whose candidates
won an election, but not the one before the current one) do not appear to exist
to any great extent, evidence of “sophomore surges” (where a party's riding
vote increases when a first-time winner runs for re-election) have been found.15
The Electoral Limitations of
significantly outweigh all disadvantages, except one: the association with a
government which has fallen out of favour with the electorate. If voters wish
to “throw the rascals out,” a government incumbent's advantages are all but
neutralized. The most evident example of this was the case of 1993 Progressive
Conservative incumbents, of whom all but one seeking re-election was defeated.
In such a case, increased media coverage is damaging if there is a perceived
government error; weak partisanship leads to a loss of support from marginal voters;
and the government might be blamed for economic or social problems,
particularly when changes in personal or disposable income directly affect
Although they benefit elsewhere, non-government incumbents jointly suffer when
a government is rejected, for they are unable to capitalize on running against
a government incumbent voters wish to defeat.17
There are a number of hazards
which incumbents may face during an election campaign. During their term, they
may have created an image of invisibility, especially compared to previous
campaign periods. Their use of staff or associated privileges might be attacked,
and they may have to continue official business obligations. Their record is
readily apparent to the media and challengers, and they might represent the
“political establishment” image. Furthermore, while challenger campaigning has
been found to be productive, incumbent campaigning may have few effects. In
fact, increased spending on an incumbent's campaign may cause anti-incumbent
and tactical voting.18
As a rule, challengers are the
primary beneficiary of election campaigns. This is particularly true where
incumbents have fallen out of favour with the constituency, and challengers can
take advantage of an incumbent's vulnerabilities. Challengers can be active in
the riding while the incumbent is away; they can aggressively challenge the
incumbent's record (while not having to defend their own); they can present a
non-political image; and they can go on the offensive without needing to
provide solutions to problems.
Constituency contests are
more meaningful for challengers than incumbents.
Generally, in constituency
contests the incumbent has the most to lose while challengers have the most to
gain. Elections afford challengers the opportunity to overcome incumbent
advantages and to develop a personal vote, particularly as the incumbent's
performance is scrutinized by challengers, constituents and the media.
It has been determined that
Canadian incumbency advantage may be overcome as direct contacts between
challengers and constituents increase, and as challengers' spending increases.
Here, increasing volatility and turnout benefits challengers more than
Incumbents must thus avoid becoming the focus of a constituency contest for
fear of attracting an intense campaign. Moreover, while all-candidates debates
likely increase the importance of local candidate considerations in vote
choice, it is widely believed that they tend to benefit candidates (typically
challengers) who have the most to gain.20 This is but one
of the benefits the constituency campaign offers challengers: they also provide
challengers an opportunity to obtain campaign experience, increase name recognition,
and attract supporters in an effort to build a support base for a second
While they may benefit
challengers and place incumbents in difficult situations, the primary benefactor
of constituency campaigns and constituency service provision is undoubtedly the
electorate. Campaigning for votes is democracy's way of ensuring elected
officials maintain contact with citizens. It stimulates political awareness and
interest, politically educates, and informs the public of policy positions.
The necessity of extensive
incumbency service provision and constituency campaigning is clearly debatable.
The wisest incumbents will protect themselves by offering some level of
constituency services, and by campaigning to some degree during elections.
Generally, if incumbents wish to be re-elected, those who devote too little (or
too many!) resources to either activity need to re-evaluate their approach
based on the evidence provided here.
1. Richard G. Price and Maureen
Mancuso, “Ties That Bind: Parliamentary Members and Their Constituencies,” Introductory
Readings in Canadian Government and Politics, 2nd ed., Robert M. Krause and
R.H. Wagenberg, eds. (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1995): p.219; Harold D.
Clarke, Richard G. Price, and Robert Krause, “Constituency Service among
Canadian Provincial Legislators: Basic Findings and a Test of Three
Hypotheses,” Canadian Journal of Political Science (Dec. 1975): p.
2. Price and Mancuso p.214-216;
David C. Docherty, Mr. Smith Goes to Ottawa: Life in the House of Commons
(Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997): p.121-123.
3. Price and Mancuso p.217.
4. Donley T. Studlar and Ian
McAllister, “The Electoral Connection in Australia: Candidate Roles, Campaign
Activity, and the Popular Vote,” Political Behavior (Sept. 1994):
5. Price and Mancuso p.211-12.
6. Bob Miller, “On the Front
Lines,” Parliamentary Government (6,2: 1986): p.4.
7. Harold D. Clarke and Richard
G. Price, “Freshmen MPs' Job Images: The Effects of Incumbency, Ambition and
Position,” Canadian Journal of Political Science (Sept. 1980):
p.583-606; Miller p.3.
8. Docherty p.129.
9. Allan Kornberg et al, “Parliament
and the Representational Process in Contemporary Canada,” Parliament, Policy
and Representation, Harold D. Clarke et al., eds. (Toronto: Methuen, 1980):
p.16; Robert J. Drummond and Frederick J. Fletcher, “Political Communication
and Orientation to Legislators among Ontario Voters,” Parliament, Policy and
Representation, Harold D. Clarke et al., eds. (Toronto: Methuen, 1980):
10. Philip Norton, “The Growth
of the Constituency Role of the MP,” Parliamentary Affairs (Oct. 1994):
p.716; John Ferejohn and Brian Gaines, “The Personal Vote in Canada,” in Representation,
Integration and Political Parties in Canada, Herman Bakvis, ed., Vol. 14 of
the research studies of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party
Financing (Ottawa and Toronto: RCERPF/Dundurn Press, 1991): p.296-297.
11. Munroe D. Eagles, “Money and
Votes in Canada: Campaign Spending and Parliamentary Election Outcomes, 1984
and 1988,” Canadian Public Policy (Dec. 1993): p.441; V.J. Bell and
Frederick J. Fletcher, “Electoral Communication at the Constituency Level: A
Framework for Analysis,” Reaching the Voter: Constituency Campaigning in
Canada, David V.J. Bell and Frederic J. Fletcher, eds., Vol. 20 of the
research studies of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party
Financing (Ottawa and Toronto: RCERPF/Dundurn Press, 1991): p.13.
12. Marjorie Randon Hershey, Running
for Office: The Political Education of Campaigners (Chatham, New Jersey:
Chatham House Publishers, 1984): p.103-105.
13. R.K. Carty, Canadian
Political Parties in the Constituencies, Vol. 23 of the research studies of
the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (Ottawa and
Toronto: RCERPF/Dundurn Press, 1991): p.176; Ferejohn and Gaines p.296-297.
14. Docherty p.213.
15. Ferejohn and Gaines p.289.
16. Jeremy Moon and Michael
Lusztig, “Post-War Patterns of Incumbency in Australian States and Canadian
Provinces,” Campbell Sharman, eds., Parties and Federalism in Australia and
Canada (Canberra: Federalism Research Centre, Australian National
University, 1994): p.220; J.R. Happy, “Economic Performance and Retrospective
Voting in Canadian Federal Elections,” Canadian Journal of Political Science
(June 1989): p.377-87.
17. Michael Krashinsky and
William J. Milne, “Additional Evidence on the Effect of Incumbency in Canadian
Elections,” Canadian Journal of Political Science (Mar. 1985):
18. Gary C. Jacobson, Money
in Congressional Elections (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1980): p.45; Charles J.
Pattie, Ronald J. Johnston and Edward A. Fieldhouse, “Winning the Local Vote:
The Effectiveness of Constituency Campaign Spending in Great Britain,
1983-1992,” American Political Science Review (Dec. 1995): p.975.
19. D. Keith Heitzman,
“Electoral Competition, Campaign Expenditure and Incumbency Advantage,” Issues
In Party and Election Finance in Canada, F. Leslie Seidle, ed., Vol. 5 of
the research studies of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party
Financing (Ottawa and Toronto: RCERPF/Dundurn Press, 1991): p.110-116, 122 and
20. Drummond and Fletcher p.118;
Luc Bernier, “Media Coverage of Local Campaigns: The 1988 Election in Outremont
and Frontenac” in Reaching the Voter: p.123; Leonard Preyra, “Riding the
Waves: Parties, the Media and the 1988 Federal Election in Nova Scotia,” in Reaching
the Voter: p.168; Tom Brook, Getting Elected in Canada (Stratford,
Ontario: Mercury Press, 1991): p.123-4.
21. Jacobson p.110-112.