Long election campaign could help challengers against incumbents

An 11-week campaign gives political candidates a long time to make their case to voters. But does it give challengers a better opportunity to defeat long-time incumbents?

There's lots of time to knock on doors, as candidates look for face time with voters in weeks ahead

Candidates seeking a parliamentary seat will be knocking on doors until mid-October. Political scientists say this extra time could help those candidates seeking to upset incumbents, as they will have a greater opportunity to meet voters. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Political scientists say the longest election campaign in recent Canadian history could provide advantages for lesser-known candidates seeking to unseat incumbents this fall, but that doesn't mean established politicians will make easy targets.

The campaign officially got started over the August long weekend and won't wrap up until voters are getting ready for Halloween. That means the people seeking to unseat incumbents will have more time than usual to get their face in front of voters in the weeks ahead.

In many places, like the riding of Essex in southwestern Ontario, these candidates have already been at work for some time. But so has the incumbent they are trying to unseat.

Conservative Jeff Watson, the incumbent, says he's been out talking with constituents for weeks.

Tracey Ramsey, the New Democrat candidate, says she's been making the rounds for months.

And Liberal candidate Audrey Festeryga has done a year's worth of driving in the Ford Edge she picked up in February.

"I've put almost 30,000 kilometres on that vehicle," she told CBC News in a telephone interview on Friday.

The rural riding near the end of Highway 401 is one of many across the country in which a longtime incumbent is running for re-election.

'A difficult road' for challengers

Lydia Miljan, an associate professor in the University of Windsor's political science department, said that candidates facing the incumbent in Essex — and also in Windsor West where another longtime incumbent is re-running — face an uphill battle in taking on a veteran.

"It still is a difficult road for the opposition candidates to get their name out and to unseat them, partly because they've got to say why they would be better than someone who's got experience in the job," she told CBC News.

Another issue for these challengers is that they need to get voters to know who they are in a way that an incumbent does not.

Cameron Anderson, an associate professor in the department of political science at Western University, believes there is some opportunity for these challengers to take advantage of a longer campaign to get their name out.

"It has the potential for an incumbency advantage … to be weakened somewhat, but I think it may depend upon the party though, that we're speaking about, that might have differential advantages or disadvantages," he said in a telephone interview.

Anderson said how these candidates fare will also depend on the money at their disposal,

"There may well be parties that are able to take greater advantage of that longer campaign on the basis of financial options," he said.

Differing reports from the doorsteps

Back in Essex, where Festeryga, Ramsey and Watson have been making their pitches to voters, the candidates all remain optimistic in the early days of the campaign.

"People after 10 years of the Conservatives in this riding have not seen their lives improve," said Ramsey.

While Watson has held the seat in Essex for more than a decade, Ramsey said that "for the folks in this area, the change that they are wanting is what I am representing and the NDP is representing, so they really are open to that."

Festeryga said, "We know that Canadians want real change and a real difference in their lives and that's what we're looking to help them with."

Watson said he's been hearing encouraging things from voters so far, including about his role as a parliamentarian and what Ottawa has done for the region since he's been in office.

"This is a performance review," he said in a telephone interview. "There's nothing better than having this kind of accountability."

While voters should expect to hear differing views from candidates of different political stripes, their party affiliation may be the most important factor in determining whether they or an incumbent are elected.

Anna Esselment, an assistant professor in the political science department at the University of Waterloo, told CBC News that research has suggested Canadians tend to base their vote on which party they support.

"If at any point you feel closer to a certain party, that's a huge determinant of who you will vote for, regardless of who the candidate is," she said in a telephone interview.

Esselment said this offers an opportunity for challengers, as "incumbency effects are so low in Canada," meaning that name recognition doesn't have the same influence as it otherwise might.


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