Tuesday, April 07, 2009

On illusions

Andrew Steele's post on the advantages of incumbency obviously reflects a Lib/Con-centric view of politics. (No, "parties of all stripes" don't set up artificial barriers to nomination challenges - it's the Cons and Libs alone who do so.) But the post is definitely worth a read in outlining evidence that the only real effect of incumbency is to dissuade otherwise-viable challengers:
Stephen Levitt, famous for Freakonomics, and Catherine Wolfram from Harvard did a complex econometric study into the causes of incumbent advantage, rather than simply measuring the advantage as earlier studies had done. They found that the source may actually be incumbents getting better at scaring away high-quality opponents.

Rather than anything based in reality, the advantage is that people thinking about running for public office over estimate the ability of the incumbent to retain office. High-profile candidates decline to run, fundraising goes uncollected by default, volunteers sit unmotivated on the sidelines and the incumbent gets back in because no one bothered to run hard against him.

Ken Carty from UBC found similar evidence in Canada. Where they are not intimidated, "local party organizations of non-winning candidates are in the position of being able to realize potentially significant electoral returns through the mobilization of additional personnel or financial resources in their constituency campaigns.
Now, Steele uses the evidence to suggest merely that the Libs and Cons should rethink their arbitrary barriers to nomination challenges (which would seem obvious to some of us simply from the perspective of internal accountability). But it seems to me that the concept applies far beyond nomination races alone.

Indeed, the studies mentioned by Steele are themselves based primarily on general election results rather than internal party challenges. And the inescapable message is that a substantial amount of the actual advantage of incumbents is based on the fact that opposing parties tend to mount something less than the greatest possible challenge.

Applying that principle to the Canadian political scene, it's then worth wondering whether many of our current political assumptions are themselves a product of parties failing to appreciate what may be possible.

The current conventional wisdom seems to suggest that the approximate party results which have been relatively consistent over the past decade will continue to be so. But is there any reason to think that the seeming tiers among Canadian political parties are any more an inevitability than the supposed advantage of incumbency? And if convincing potential candidates and supporters to push forward in the face of a perceived advantage is more than half the battle in making up any actual ground, then doesn't that become an even more important task?

No comments:

Post a Comment