Do Constraints Limit Opportunism? Incumbent Electoral Performance Before and After (Partially) Fixed-Term Laws


Over the last two decades, a number of Westminster parliamentary countries have adopted fixed or partially fixed election dates in response to growing public concerns about the ability of First Ministers to unfairly manipulate the timing of elections. Do First Ministers and their political parties gain an electoral advantage by controlling the timing of elections? Does that advantage disappear after the introduction of legislation constraining opportunistic election timing? We address these questions by analyzing and comparing 37 years of election results in eight Canadian provinces prior and subsequent to the passage of election timing legislation. Our evidence suggests that critics of the election timing power may be justified in calling for limits to this discretionary power.

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  1. 1.

    The other provinces and the years they passed legislation include: Newfoundland and Labrador 2004; Ontario 2005; New Brunswick 2007; Saskatchewan 2008; Prince Edward Island 2008; Manitoba 2008; and Alberta 2011.

  2. 2.

    In contrast, Alcantara and Roy (2014, p. 266) draw upon multiple streams theory to find that two other factors matter as well. They suggest that the sequencing of legislation adoption in Canada was the result of the convergence of three streams: democratic malaise (problem stream), fixed election dates (policy stream), and an opposition party adopting fixed election dates in its platform prior to defeating “an incumbent political party that has won consecutive mandates as the government” (political stream). On this latter point, see also Ferris and Olmstead (2017).

  3. 3.

    We excluded Nova Scotia because it has not passed fixed election date legislation, and Quebec because it had yet to have an election in which the partially fixed date applies (Quebec enacted legislation in 2013, but there was a minority government at the time).

  4. 4.

    For instance, Schleiter and Tavits (2016) do not control for the fact that the Canadian federal government passed fixed election date legislation in 2007.

  5. 5.

    This score is somewhat odd since the federal government in Canada passed legislation in 2007 and so while the Prime Minister continues to have some discretion over maintaining the confidence of the House, the legislation is still somewhat constraining, not only in legal terms, but also symbolically and morally. Blais et al. (2004), for instance, have found that some voters resented Prime Minister Jean Chrétien for calling a snap election in 2000. One might expect a similar reaction to a Prime Minister calling a snap or early election post 2007.

  6. 6.

    At the federal level, “under the new law, elections are to be held every 4 years on the third Monday of October” (Aucoin et al. 2011, p. 63).

  7. 7.

    As the economy worsens, incumbents are likely to feel the added weight of the economic decline on their public support and electoral chances in a future election. To avoid these losses, which increase as the economy worsens, they are more likely to embrace the risk of a snap election, which is consistent with the idea of loss aversion (Kahneman and Tversky 1979).

  8. 8.

    For each province-month, we calculate the slope of the seasonally adjusted provincial unemployment rate over the previous 3 months and the previous 6 months (Statistics Canada 2016a), and the slope of the provincial Consumer Price Index (CPI) for all items over the previous 3 months and the previous 6 months (Statistics Canada 2016b). Three- and Six-month trends for both economic measures are moderately correlated (Pearson’s r = .58 and .47 for CPI and unemployment rate trends, respectively).

  9. 9.

    We have not adjusted standard errors for clustering within provinces in these analyses. Abadie et al. (2017) show that clustering adjustments are appropriate when clusters of observations are sampled in a two- or multi-stage sampling process, or when clusters of observations are assigned to a treatment in experimental designs (or quasi-experimental observational designs, when values on the independent variable are clustered). Neither of these conditions applies in this study.

  10. 10.

    Changes in predicted probabilities are derived from the parameter estimates in Table 2, and calculated using Long and Freese’s (2006) SPost commands in Stata.

  11. 11.

    The weak relationship between economic conditions and election timing under the legislation is also noteworthy evidence that economic conditions are exogenous in these models. A large body of research argues incumbents time public spending to stimulate economic growth in the period leading up to elections, raising the prospect that election timing causes economic conditions, rather than the other way around (for evidence from Canadian provinces see Petry et al. 1999; see also Tellier 2006, for important qualifications to the argument and evidence). However, if endogeneity were an issue, then even (or especially) under partially fixed date legislation we would expect to find substantial and statistically significant positive relationships between improving economic conditions and election timing: incumbents, no longer able to control when they must face the electorate, would have an even stronger incentive to stimulate economic growth in the lead-up to election.

  12. 12.

    Provincial election data were collected from the official websites of the Chief Electoral Officers of each province.

  13. 13.

    As well, as Anthony Downs suggests (1957, pp. 55–60), sometimes opposition parties can win power, under certain conditions, by forming a coalition of minorities. As these new governments make decisions, they are likely to create some level of dissatisfaction among at least some societal groups. The longer that the coalition governs, the more likely that the number of dissatisfied societal groups and individuals will increase.

  14. 14.

    Lengthy rule by another party is observed in the first six provinces to implement partially fixed dates—British Columbia (10 years), Newfoundland and Labrador (14 years), Ontario (8 years), New Brunswick (7 years), Saskatchewan (16 years), Prince Edward Island (10 years)—and has been found to be a significant factor for why these provinces adopted fixed election date legislation when they did (Alcantara and Roy 2014).

  15. 15.

    Despite the small number of observations, these results are not sensitive to influential outliers (robust regression estimates of the mean differences between elections before the initial elections under partially fixed dates, and subsequent elections under partially fixed dates are essentially the same). We also estimated a regression model that included a control for a potential confounder: the length of tenure of governing parties in office (that is, the number of consecutive months the incumbent governing party had been in power at the time of the election). This took into account the possibility that “new” governments are more likely to have introduced election timing legislation and also tend to be more popular than governments with long tenures in office (Alcantara and Roy 2014). The results indicate governing parties with longer tenures in office are less successful in elections, but the effect is not statistically different from zero. Controlling for its effects does not substantially change our original results.

  16. 16.

    These results are not sensitive to influential outliers: robust regression estimates generate essentially the same results.


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Correspondence to Christopher Alcantara.

Appendix: Cases by Province

Appendix: Cases by Province

  Elections prior to fixed date legislation Elections under fixed date legislation
Newfoundland and Labrador 7 (1979, 1982, 1985, 1989, 1993, 1996, 1999, 2003) 3 (2007, 2011, 2015)
Prince Edward Island 8 (1979, 1982, 1986, 1989, 1993, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2007) 2 (2011, 2015)
New Brunswick 7 (1982, 1987, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2006) 2 (2010, 2014)
Ontario 5 (1985, 1990, 1995, 1999, 2003) 2 (2007, 2011)
Manitoba 6 (1981, 1986, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007) 2 (2011, 2016)
Saskatchewan 6 (1982, 1986, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2007) 2 (2011, 2016)
Alberta 9 (1979, 1982, 1986, 1989, 1993, 1997, 2991, 2994, 2008) 2 (2012, 2015)
British Columbia 6 (1979, 1983, 1986, 1991, 1996, 2001) 3 (2005, 2009, 2013)

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White, S.E., Alcantara, C. Do Constraints Limit Opportunism? Incumbent Electoral Performance Before and After (Partially) Fixed-Term Laws. Polit Behav 41, 657–675 (2019).

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  • Opportunistic election timing
  • Incumbency advantage
  • Political surfing
  • Electoral success
  • Fixed election dates