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Experience matters in elections, but not if there’s a wave

Susan Delacourt of the Toronto Star posted a note on the Star’s website about the discussion of the newly elected NDP MPs from Quebec and their inexperience.

She wrote:

“Forgive me for dashing any lingering  illusions, but the CV has almost nothing to do with winning and losing elections. And it has even less to do with how well MPs fare once they arrive on Parliament Hill.”

While her second point may be true, research does not support her first.

A while back, I wrote a column in the Hill Times about this.  The research came from a major part of my PhD dissertation.

I looked at the 2004, 2006, and 2008 elections and assessed whether candidate quality had any impact on things like fundraising and performance on election day.

What I found was that quality does matter – particularly previous elected experience.

I wrote:

“Results indicate that candidate quality is related to the electoral fortunes of non-incumbent candidates in the three elections, all else being equal. Candidates with previous political experience at all three levels of government performed better than candidates with no political experience. Provincial experience provided a 7.4 percentage point boost when compared to non-quality challengers. Being a former MP and having municipal elected experience also provided an electoral boost, albeit somewhat smaller than provincial experience.

A candidate’s occupation and profile outside of politics was also positively related to electoral performance. On average, candidates in high-profile occupations performed 2.6 percentage points better than challengers who were not in high-profile occupations.

Interestingly, for political aides and senior party representatives considering running for office, data suggests that not only will there be no boost in performance, but on average, political aides and party representatives were at a disadvantage to candidates with no political experience.”

However, I also found (in the dissertation) that quality seemed to matter less when there were large positive national or regional swings.  So in the case of the Conservative Party in 2006 and 2008, the quality of the candidate didn’t noticeably improve their local performance.  However, for parties on the downswing, like the Liberals in 2006 and 2008, the quality of the local candidate acted like a buffer – lessening the impact of the national or regional swings away from the party.

So while it is true then that the experience of NDP candidates in Quebec had no effect on NDP fortunes in the province, past research does suggest that those losing candidates whom Ms. Delacourt cites probably did better than if an inexperienced or non-incumbent candidate was running in their place.

All this to say, there is certainly a local effect in Canada politics.  It’s not huge, but it can have noticeable effects.