The next Riigikogu election will take place in March 2015. With another cohort of hopeful candidates entering the ring shortly, it is useful to look at what previous elections can teach candidates about how to get elected. Siim Trumm, a lecturer in politics at the University of Sheffield in the UK, has examined the role that campaign activity and political capital have on candidates’ electoral performance in Estonia.
The electoral campaigns of today are multi-faceted and fast-evolving. Long gone are the days where class barriers were impenetrable and parties could rely on ‘voters for life’. Instead, we have reached the era of ‘shopping around’. Voting is increasingly ad hoc, issue-based, and crucially, it is becoming more and more personalized. With (blind) loyalty out of the window, we are witnessing a rise in the number of late-deciders, swing voters, and in split-ticket voting. And with an increasing number of votes up for grabs, candidates are unsurprisingly throwing more and more money at their electoral campaigns to galvanize "last-minute" support and capitalize on voters’ uncertainty in the run up to the election.
How much difference can extra €s really make for candidates’ electoral chances?
It is widely accepted that candidates who spend more on their electoral campaigns than their competitors fare better. This is the case even when controlling for other potentially relevant characteristics such as the campaign focus, incumbency, local-level political experience, and party belonging. The effect of spending has been documented in a wide range of countries, including the US, the UK, Belgium, Canada, Ireland, France, as well as at the European elections. Using individual-level data from the 2011 Estonian Candidate Survey (ECS), it is now possible to look also how spending affects electoral success in Estonia.
Descriptive figures from the ECS show that, in the 2011 election, the average unsuccessful candidate reported spending €950 on personal campaigning. In contrast, the average successful candidate spent just over €7,000. Therefore, it certainly seems that one has to spend more in order to get elected in Estonia. For a more detailed insight, the figure below highlights candidates’ chances of getting elected at different levels of campaign spending.
Clearly, there is a strong relationship between spending and winning. When looking at the cumulative performance of all candidates, their chances of getting elected rose from 6.8 percent to 14.8 percent, when their spending increased from €0 to €2,500. And if candidates wanted to be even more confident about winning, all they had to do was to just keep spending. While €10,000 spent on one’s campaign meant a healthy 70.1 percent chance of getting elected, spending €15,000 corresponded to a whopping 93.8 percent chance of becoming an MP. While money certainly does not guarantee a seat in the parliament, it can significantly enhance one’s odds of getting elected.
Let’s look at incumbents and challengers separately now. Clearly both types of candidates benefit from increased campaign spending, but there is more to it. Whereas the "old-timers" may get away with little spending, the "newcomers" need to spend big. In fact, challengers need to spend €6,750 on their own campaigns just to reach the 40 percent chance of getting elected that incumbents enjoy without having to spend a cent. At higher levels of spending, however, the gap does close. Incumbents have a smaller 28.2 percent advantage over challengers when both spend €10,000, and just a 6.4 percent one at €15,000. Incumbency clearly improves one’s chances of getting elected, but money can certainly mitigate the disadvantage of being the new kid on the block.
It is not all about money (and incumbency)
It would be quite a depressing picture if campaigns all came down to money and incumbency only. Luckily this is not the case. While party-related factors like the strength of a candidate’s local party organization and whether she is an active member of her local party or not seem to have no real influence on her chances of getting elected, the figures suggest that the focus of a candidate’s campaign (on her party label vs. her own profile) and her local-level political experience do matter.
While a candidate with local-level experience has a greater chance of being elected, the data suggest that simply having the experience may not be sufficient. Rather, it is talking about those personal qualifications that matters more; candidates who clearly stress their personal attributes during their campaign enjoy more significant benefits. All things being equal, having high vs. low local-level political experience increases one’s chances of getting elected by 14.3 percent (from 9.5 percent to 23.8 percent). At the same time, conducting a candidate-centered vs. party-centered electoral campaign means a 26.9 percent jump (from 9.3 percent to 36.2 percent) in a candidate’s chances of being elected. And candidates do not even have to spend that much to get elected when being strategic and promoting their own image through their electoral campaign. In fact, if conducting a candidate-centered campaign, spending €3,400 is already enough to have a 50 percent chance of getting elected, while €9,100 puts a candidate over the 90 percent mark.
So what does all this mean for our democracy?
As money can win elections for would-be MPs, the current electoral dynamic simply does not create the need for politicians to invest time and effort in party development. Strong local party organizations that are prominent features of the societal fabric are, however, desirable for stable and healthy democracy. They help us move away from the centralized and elite-driven party democracy towards a more participatory and grassroots democracy. In doing so, they contribute to the stability of the party system, promote political participation, as well as enhance policy responsiveness and effectiveness through a greater awareness of local political issues.
If local party organizations benefit democracy, how then do we encourage candidates to build this foundation at the local level? It may be necessary to "force" limits on campaign spending and, in doing so, reduce the dominating impact that money currently has on who gets elected. By limiting the extent to which candidates are able to rely on the short-term "smash-and-grab" strategy to get elected, candidates will have more incentives to think long-term and develop a greater structural capacity to connect to the electorate. Strong local party organizations would be able to do exactly that by offering a closer connection with the electorate on the grassroots level through a more permanent and visible presence in the district.