Despite Bill Smith receiving a 17 per cent advantage over incumbent Naheed Nenshi in a recent poll, unseating an incumbent mayor is still extremely difficult for challengers, experts say.
The poll, conducted earlier this month by Mainstreet Research and Postmedia, had Smith at 48 per cent of decided voters, Nenshi with 31 per cent and Chabot at six per cent.
“Name recognition matters a lot. It’s easier to raise money as an incumbent than it is a challenger,” says Mount Royal University (MRU) political scientist, Duane Bratt.
With a re-election level of 90 per cent, an incumbent mayor has not been unseated in Calgary since Ralph Klein defeated Ross Alger in 1980, he said.
The absence of political parties makes it really hard for challengers to define themselves and to give people a shorthand to understand what they stand for, said independent pollster Janet Brown.
Low voter turnout in municipal elections is a problem, said Bratt. “You have to start early against an incumbent to defeat an incumbent.”
Lori Williams, MRU associate professor of policy studies, agrees previous publicity gives incumbents an upper hand in municipal elections.
“They are the ones that have been in the news on a number of issues, they’ve been connecting with voters for the entire time that they’ve been in office. They have a voice and a forum that other candidates cannot access,” she says.
“The other thing is that the price to enter the race is so low, it means that these are races full of lots and lots of people,” says Brown.
The cost of entering is only $100 at the ward level, and $500 to run for mayor.
“I don’t think there should be big barriers to entering politics, but the question is why is it so hard to unseat an incumbent and that would be one of the reasons,” says Brown.
Another major problem is the fundraising advantage incumbents have over challengers.
There are fundraising limits on how much any single donor can contribute to a campaign, with a yearly cap of $5,000 per individual. “An incumbent is able to accumulate money over four years, and that’s the peculiarity of our electoral system,” says Williams.
“[Incumbents] are the ones that have been in the news on a number of issues, they’ve been connecting with voters for the entire time that they’ve been in office. They have a voice and a forum that other candidates cannot access.” – Lori Williams
Although Nenshi’s approval ratings have dropped significantly this year, Brown said he is still a very popular mayor.
“His popularity was so high when he was first elected and in the immediate months after the flood. I think his popularity has waned a bit, but he’s popular at a level that most other mayors around the world would drool over.”
Some credit Nenshi’s success to social media, but Brown says this is a “grave oversimplification” and “overestimation of the power of Twitter in an election campaign.”
“You hear a lot that Nenshi’s so good at social media [and] won in 2010 because of social media, but you never hear Nenshi… or anybody close to his campaign say that,” she says.
According to Brown, only a small fraction of voters are really paying attention to the election through social media. Although Nenshi uses social media as a tool to organize enthusiastic volunteers, his online engagement does not exceed his face-to-face engagement with voters.
Williams agrees Nenshi has contributed positively with Calgarians in many ways on social media, but said this has not always been the case.
“That more combative style of things that have gotten him in trouble… his general arrogance or disdain for people that disagree with him sometimes doesn’t play terribly well,” says Williams.
David Lapp, who is running against Nenshi, knows he has a tough task, but he said the mayor’s administration has run its course. “It’s been seven years and Calgarians are coming to the consensus that it’s time to switch it up.”
“You’ve seen the mayor behave a bit better on taxes over the past nine months because there’s an election coming up,” says Lapp.
Lapp added, “If you look at the past seven years, taxes have gone up, public services have gone down, and city salaries have increased. We have the highest paid mayor in Canada, so people look at these things and see a city hall that’s out of touch.”
Bratt said this sentiment is growing among Calgarians. “[Nenshi] has always had a group of people that do not like him, and that number has grown. In 2013 they could not find a viable challenger… but in 2017, they have found their candidate in Bill Smith,” he says.
As the former Progressive Conservative Party president, Smith has the funding behind him to make him a strong contender.
With a Liberal federal government and NDP provincial government currently in power, many conservative organizers and donors are placing their efforts behind Smith, said Brown.
“When the final numbers come out, maybe Nenshi won’t be that far ahead when it comes to fundraising; he might actually be behind. That’s what makes this a real competitive election.”
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