Closest to the People? Incumbency Advantage and the Personal Vote in Non-Partisan Elections

AuthorKim-Lee Tuxhorn,Jack Lucas,R. Michael McGregor
Published date01 March 2022
Date01 March 2022
Subject MatterArticles
2022, Vol. 75(1) 188 –202
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912921990751
Few electoral arenas are more favorable to incumbents
than non-partisan cities. Re-election rates among
incumbent candidates in these contests regularly exceed
ninety percent, and elections in which every incumbent
candidate is successfully re-elected are so common as
to merit little more than passing mention in post-elec-
tion news coverage. For some, these success rates are a
sign of serious trouble, an indication that non-partisan
incumbents have little incentive to attend to their con-
stituents’ preferences (Bednar 2014). Others suggest
that the opposite is true: incumbent success reflects the
fact that non-partisan city politicians are “closest to the
people,” free from party discipline and distant travel
and able to focus on the concrete interests and needs of
their constituents (Oliver 2012).
The size of the “personal vote”—the relationship and
reputation that incumbents cultivate with their constitu-
ents—thus has important implications for our under-
standing of incumbent success in non-partisan elections.
If incumbents in these elections enjoy a substantial per-
sonal vote, this may indicate that local incumbent success
rates are indeed a reflection of a distinctively close con-
nection that non-partisan politicians enjoy with their con-
stituents. By contrast, if incumbent success in non-partisan
elections is driven by other factors, such as instantaneous
incumbency cues or challenger scare-off, the case for
non-partisanship as a means to improved democratic rep-
resentation is more tenuous. Providing evidence with
which to adjudicate among these possibilities is espe-
cially important in an era in which non-partisan city poli-
tics is held up as a positive example of non-polarized,
pragmatic, democratic policymaking (Barber 2013).
In this paper, we combine individual survey data with
quasi-random assignment to old or new incumbent candi-
dates to provide a more precise and robust assessment of
the size and persistence of the personal vote than has been
possible in previous aggregate-level research. We use
three original data sources to identify the size, persis-
tence, and electoral consequences of the personal vote in
Calgary, Alberta, the eighth-largest non-partisan city in
North America. We first leverage a natural experiment
created by a 2017 ward boundary revision process, in
combination with novel individual-level survey data, to
show that the probability of voting for an incumbent
PRQXXX10.1177/1065912921990751Political Research QuarterlyLucas et al.
1University of Calgary, AB, Canada
2Ryerson University, Toronto, ON, Canada
Corresponding Author:
Jack Lucas, Faculty of Arts, University of Calgary, 618 Campus Place
N.W., Calgary T2N 1N4, AB, Canada.
Closest to the People? Incumbency
Advantage and the Personal Vote
in Non-Partisan Elections
Jack Lucas1, R. Michael McGregor2, and Kim-Lee Tuxhorn1
Do incumbents dominate non-partisan elections because of an especially large personal vote? This question has
important implications for understanding the causes of incumbent success and the benefits or drawbacks of non-
partisan elections. This paper uses a natural experiment, combined with three original datasets, to estimate the size,
persistence, and consequences of the personal vote in a large non-partisan city election. We first use individual-
level survey data to show that individuals assigned quasi-randomly to a new incumbent are substantially less likely
to support the incumbent. We use a second survey, one year later, to demonstrate the persistence of this effect.
Finally, we use historical election results to simulate the electoral consequences of the personal vote; we find that the
personal vote is sufficiently large to affect one in four incumbent races. We conclude that the personal vote, while
large and important, is not sufficient to explain incumbent dominance in non-partisan contests.
incumbency advantage, personal vote, municipal elections, non-partisan elections, municipal politics, natural experiment

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