Sunday, September 14, 2008

Election 2008 - Is the phony war over?

The first week or two of a Canadian election campaign usually produces much rhetoric and an abundance of polling data. However it is a little like seeing the autumn of 1939 in Europe as representative of World War II - the most important events are yet to come.

The polls do show a big Conservative lead. While one or two have the Harperites over 40%, most have them around 37/38. They have a fairly large lead over the Liberals in second place. For the moment the Conservatives appear to be still shy of a majority but close. There is also wide variation in the position of the parties - Conservative support ranged from 36% to 43%, Liberal from 23% to 32% and the NDP from 13% to 21%. This indicates to TC that preferences in general remain weak. Polls tend to converge toward the end of campaigns when voters really decide how to vote.

Whether it is majority or minority depends on many things. Chr├ętien had a majority in 1997 with 38% of the vote, while Pearson won 41.5% in 1963 and he wound up with a minority government. The Conservatives may have about 38% but they waste a lot of votes in Alberta and other parts of the rural west. It is too soon to tell if we will see a majority.

The most striking moment of the week came when Canadian opinion galvanized behind admitting the Greens to the tv debates and forced a change. I think what happened is that because the Greens have now acquired a measure of legitimacy in the political universe, the initial act of keeping them out triggered a reflex action in Canadian opinion, which perceived the exclusion as a violation of the underlying Canadian value of equality. It appeared unfair because it seemed to treat the Greens unequally.

Hence, the action produced a tsunami of protest, as canvassing NDP candidates discovered the next day. However, the storm passed quickly because the parties and the consortium reversed themselves. It was not, as Elizabeth May believes, about the environment as an issue per se. It was about equal treatment, and was reminiscent of the reaction in Ontario in 2007 to the John Tory idea of giving aid to private schools. However, it gets her into the debates and therefore potentially changes the dynamics of the election.

The Greens have poor prospects of actually electing any candidates. As a postmodern party, it has wide support (almost 5% in 2006) but it is not deep in any one region. What permitted parties such as the CCF and Reform to get into the House of Commons in the past was concentrated regional support. The Greens do well in a few thinly populated places such as Saltspring Island but it is simply a part of Saanich-Gulf Islands constituency where most voters live in the suburbs of Victoria. Overall the Greens win votes everywhere but not at levels that would let them start winning seats.

Elizabeth May, who talks about doing politics differently, and says nice things about Stephane Dion frequently, could influence her supporters to vote for the Liberals by urging them to cast a strategic ballot near the end of the campaign. One can't tell if it will have any impact because it would be so unprecedented for a party leader to do such a thing in a Canadian election, which is, whether May likes it or not, a zero sum game.

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