Monday, March 23, 2015

Elections and expectations: what will matter in 2015?

There has been much media speculation about a spring election.  If Stephen Harper saw the opportunity he would not hesitate to call one, but current polling makes it clear his majority would disappear. Back in 2008 Harper actually said that his fixed election date law meant there should not be an early election call. According to Lawrence Martin's 2010 book Harperland: The Politics of Control in an August 26, 2008 press scrum:
When journalists pressed him about his legislation on election timing, he replied, "We are clear. You can only have certainty about a fixed election date in the context of a majority government."
I have little doubt there is video tape of this quote in some media outlet's news archives.

In the pre-campaign skirmishing now underway the party leaders are articulating alternative visions of what they would like this fall's election campaign to be about. In the last couple of weeks Justin Trudeau delivered a major speech on "Canadian Liberty" , emphasizing his party's support for multiculturalism and the Charter of Rights, while Thomas Mulcair spoke about an urban agenda to a rally in Toronto where he promised reforms such as a federal minimum wage, support for public transit, and restoring the retirement age to 65. The Stephen Harper warned about the dangers of the niqab, advised an audience in Saskatoon that guns are needed by rural Canadians for personal protection and promised an extension of the Canadian military mission in middle east.

What are Canadians to make of this? Will voters cast ballots motivated by fear of the niqab, affirm their support for the Charter of Rights, or vote on bread and butter issues such as those raised by Mulcair?

The Reasoning Voter is a 1991 book by Sam Popkin, a political scientist who was a one-time polling advisor to CBS News, and a consultant to Bill Clinton's presidential campaign.  He argues that it is important to understand the voters do reason about their voting decision.  In the introduction to his book he says:
...voters actually do reason about parties, candidates, and issues. They have premises, and they use those premises to make inferences from their observations of the world around them. They think about who and what political parties stand for; they think about the meaning of political endorsements; they think about what government can and should do. And the performance of government, parties, and candidates affects their assessments and preferences. 
The term low-information rationality - popularly known as "gut" reasoning - best describes the kind of practical thinking about government and politics in which people actually engage.
In the end they vote on their perceived interests and who can deliver on them. Often what dominates headlines in lead-up to a campaign turns out to have little impact when the votes are counted, even if it is something that can evoke strong opinions and make for dramatic headlines. What serves media interests is not the same as the interests of voters.

The 2014 Ontario election is a classic example: the opposition parties spent much of their time in question period and media scrums talking about the gas plants scandal. Later it was the most important theme in the campaign's TV debate, which Kathleen Wynne was deemed to have lost. They opposition leaders were wasting their time. The agenda for the election was actually set by the Liberal budget that introduced reforms such as a wage increase for home care workers, a higher minimum wage, and a possible Ontario pension plan. The Liberal focus on economic and social policy combined with PC leader Tim Hudak's promise to eliminate 100,000 public sector jobs is what fundamentally determined the outcome. Practical social and economic issues that affected voters' day to day lives was what mattered.

It was not just Ontario. In Quebec's 2014 election a campaign that was supposed to be about the PQ's Charter of Values wound up being about not having another independence referendum. One effect of the Charter was to strengthen the electoral participation of the Charter's opponents non-francophone non-anglophone voters. This directly lead to the loss of three PQ seats in Montreal.

It is not enough to know what voters think about an issue.  We need to know if they care about it in the context of voting and how they are reasoning about it. Many of the issues we see in polls and headlines don't necessarily have any connection to the voting choices that will eventually be made. A Forum Research poll out this week reported that two thirds of Canadians oppose allowing women to wear the niqab while the same poll respondents gave the Liberal Party a 36-32 lead over the Conservatives. On the clear face of it this is not a voting issue - there is a complete disconnect between partisan choice and vote intention on the part of those taking part in the Forum survey. This should not be surprising given what happened last year in Quebec, where the PQ Charter was generally not a voting issue, except where it hurt the PQ.

At the moment, the debate about the niqab and "Canadian Liberty" is seizing more media attention than Thomas Mulcair's emphasis on social and economic issues but I suspect it is the latter that will be more important in the campaign this fall. This doesn't necessarily mean that the NDP is poised to surge upwards. Voters could end up preferring the economic and social policy approaches of Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper. However, it is likely that Mulcair is right about the terrain of the campaign, when it does come. This is likely bad news for Stephen Harper. The fact that he is emphasizing terrorism and foreign policy suggests he does not see domestic concerns as one of this strengths in 2015.

In the end voters will make choices based on reasoning that relates to how they view the world and the partisan and leadership choices before them at the time. One should not jump to conclusions in the spring about how that process is going to play out in the fall.