The 2019 election proved the power of incumbency still works – sometimes

It was a disappointing result for New Democrats in Quebec when the party dropped from the 16 seats it held in the province after the 2015 election to just one in 2019.

But the strategy the NDP employed in Quebec — banking on the popularity of local incumbents — nearly worked.

An analysis of the performance of incumbent MPs across the country suggests that the top performers were all Quebec NDP MPs. But only one of them — Alexandre Boulerice in Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie — was able to withstand the significant negative trend lines facing the New Democrats in the province.

The list of incumbents punching above their weight is not limited to New Democrats. It includes some Quebec Conservatives and Liberal cabinet ministers — and it suggests that sometimes the name on the ballot does have a big impact.

For this analysis, the value to a party of running an incumbent was measured by comparing their share of the vote in their riding to the share that they were expected to win. That was calculated by altering the result of the 2015 election by the shift in support for that incumbent’s party in 2019 in their region as a whole.

For example, the New Democrats went from 25.4 per cent of the vote in Quebec in 2015 to just 10.7 per cent in October. That means the NDP received just 42 per cent of its 2015 support. Applying that to each riding in the province provides a baseline for comparison.

Boulerice received 49.2 per cent of the vote in Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie in 2015. Considering the drop in support for the NDP in Quebec in 2019, Boulerice should have gotten 20.7 per cent of the vote in his riding. Instead, he got 42.5 per cent — roughly twice what he was expected to get.

By that standard, Boulerice did better than any other incumbent in the country, out-performing expectations by nearly 22 percentage points. Thanks to Boulerice’s personal appeal, he was able to secure re-election handily, defeating the Liberal challenger in his riding by about 11,000 votes.

But he was the only New Democrat to win in Quebec on election night.

Quebec NDP incumbents over-achieved, but not enough

The 10 incumbents who beat their expected support levels by the widest margins include six New Democrats in Quebec. They were Karine Trudel in Jonquière, Ruth Ellen Brosseau in Berthier–Maskinongé, Pierre-Luc Dusseault in Sherbrooke, Guy Caron in Rimouski-Neigette–Témiscouata–Les Basques and Brigitte Sansoucy in Saint-Hyacinthe–Bagot.

But the drop in support for the New Democrats across Quebec was too great for these incumbents to overcome. Only Dusseault and Brosseau came close to being re-elected, losing by a margin of one and three points respectively. Caron finished nine points behind the Bloc candidate, Trudel was 11 points behind and Sansoucy was 23 points back.

Ruth Ellen Brosseau did better than most NDP incumbents in Quebec, losing by a margin of just one per cent.

That these New Democrats punched above their weight should not have come as any surprise. In 2015 — when the NDP also saw a significant decrease in its Quebec support — the list of top over-achieving incumbents included Brosseau, Caron, Boulerice and Dusseault. 

Not all NDP incumbents did better than expectations, however. The least valuable incumbents included three New Democrats in southwestern Ontario: Tracey Ramsey in Essex, Brian Masse in Windsor West and Cheryl Hardcastle in Windsor–Tecumseh.

The New Democrats performed disproportionately badly in this corner of Ontario. That’s notable, considering that the NDP’s share of the vote across the province actually went up marginally.

This hit in the Windsor area cost the NDP two seats. Only Masse was re-elected, with the Liberals taking Windsor–Tecumseh and the Conservatives winning Essex.

Quebec Conservative MPs, Liberal cabinet ministers also bucked trends

Despite their gains in the country as a whole, the Conservatives lost support in Quebec, dropping from 16.7 per cent of the vote in 2015 to 16 per cent in 2019. But a few of their incumbents proved unexpectedly resilient and the party dropped only two seats in the Quebec City area.

Two Conservative incumbents cracked the top ten in over-achievement: Bernard Généreux in Montmagny–L’Islet–Kamouraska–Rivière-du-Loup and Alain Rayes in Richmond–Arthabaska. Luc Berthold in Mégantic–L’Érable ranked as the 12th most-valuable incumbent. All three were re-elected, and all three did about 14 to 15 points better than expected.

The most over-achieving Liberal incumbent — Randy Boissonnault — was not in cabinet. He did 12 points better than expected in Edmonton Centre, though not good enough to win.

Liberal Randy Boissonnault’s incumbency may have boosted his numbers in Edmonton Centre, but not enough to put him over the top. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

But other Liberals ranking among the most valuable incumbents include cabinet ministers like Ahmed Hussen in York South–Weston, Jim Carr in Winnipeg South Centre, Seamus O’Regan in St. John’s South–Mount Pearl and Amarjeet Sohi in Edmonton Mill Woods. Hussen, Carr and O’Regan were re-elected; Sohi was not.

What all this tells us is that the extra profile that comes with incumbency does have an impact. (The extra resources parties pump into ridings where cabinet ministers are in danger probably play a role as well.) These incumbents did better than other Liberal candidates. Overall, 72 per cent of Liberal incumbents beat their baseline expectations, a sign that incumbents from a party in decline tend to out-perform their non-incumbent colleagues.

In Quebec, for example, the average Liberal incumbent did about three percentage points better than expected. Other Liberal candidates did about three percentage points worse.

So local candidates still matter; incumbency can make a difference in a close contest. But the experience of the NDP in Quebec shows that the local candidate can only do so much. Even a strong incumbent can’t always overcome a weak national campaign.

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