There are 12 municipal ridings in Edmonton and nine of them have incumbents seeking re-election. If history is any indication, that means they have a distinct advantage.
Since 2001, almost every incumbent running in Alberta’s capital has successfully defended their seat on city council.
According to research from the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, the number of incumbents being re-elected has risen steadily since 1890, when incumbents maintained their seats 60 per cent of the time.
Ray Martin is a long-time politician who is retiring from his position as a trustee on the Edmonton Public School Board.
“People don’t necessarily know all the people and what they stand for and the rest of it, but they recognize a name,” he explained. “So it’s difficult – not impossible, but difficult – to knock off an incumbent.”
Martin suggested there are a few ways new candidates can present a challenge to incumbents: if an opponent has a higher profile in the community or if the incumbent is involved in a scandal.
He said it also helps to have a solid financial backing.
“That’s not necessarily going to win you an election, but with some money, you can at least get some pamphlets out, get some signs out and try to get your name out. Yes, money plays a part in politics.”
Outgoing councillor Bryan Anderson knows what it’s like to have the incumbent advantage. He was first elected in 1998, but says he was never over-confident on election day.
“I don’t think I ever felt safe,” Anderson said. “But, my common sense helped me recognize the fact that I certainly did have a leg up on the people running against me.”
So how do you challenge someone with experience and name recognition? Locally, five candidates, including four prospective councillors, hired a company called Statecraft Partners to help run their campaigns.
“We turned down more candidates than we engaged with this election cycle,” said Statecraft CEO Najib Jutt. “We want to be careful that the ones that we choose, especially if they’re up against an incumbent, have a chance to beat that incumbent.”
Statecraft co-founder Isaac Watson compares their candidate’s campaigns to a startup business.
“A new candidate has a huge hurdle in order to get caught up and then get ahead.”
The company helps with multiple aspects of a campaign.
“Anything from data analytics to coordinating call outs, script writing, speech writing, coordinating events, fundraisers – all the way to the get-out-the-vote strategy and volunteer coordination,” Watson said.
In Statecraft’s experience, unseating an incumbent requires financial backing, community support and a strong work ethic.
“A lot of this campaigning just comes down to hours in,” he explained. “Putting all the time into developing creative materials, to get your teams moving, to get out and make those connections.”
Money is needed to reach voters. Statecraft believes there are seven ways residents need to get a candidate’s information: door knocking, signs, flyers, phone calls, traditional media, social media and online advertising.
Watson acknowledges unseating an incumbent is a challenge, but says it can also be rewarding.
“This is democracy in practice. This is about getting groups of people together to rally behind someone because they really want a change. Sometimes change is hard and you might be fighting an uphill battle, but it’s necessary in getting new blood in the mix.”
Statecraft also helps candidates plot out a campaign strategy – specifically in ridings where an incumbent exists.
“The number one thing is to find out where the incumbent has failed. We don’t generally want to take on incumbents that we feel are doing a great job,” Jutt said.
“We’ve identified somewhere that the incumbent has misstepped or isn’t fulfilling what the communities need. Then we just laser focus on those weak points and build our candidate to be strong where they’re weak.”
With just five days before the election, their candidates are focusing on getting voters out to the polls on Oct. 16.
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