Monday, October 05, 2015

Will strategic voting make a difference to the outcome of the 2015 election?

This has been cross-posted at iPolitics.

Since the 1960s, the Conservative party — in its various identities — has been moving steadily to the right. This has opened a widening gap between what is now a very right-wing party and the various parties of the centre and left.

Most voters do not have strong partisan alignments, but a large number hold values and political views that place them a considerable ideological distance from Stephen Harper. They have a strong incentive to vote strategically and they likely will. Their impact on the election could be significant.

The first person in Canadian politics to embody Harper’s ideological outlook was former Ontario Premier Mike Harris (several of Harris’ former ministers became part of the Harper cabinet, including Tony Clement, the late Jim Flaherty and John Baird). In 1999 Harris was the first major target of strategic voting.

In the 1999 Ontario election, Harris was re-elected. Nonetheless, that election saw a wave of strategic voting that had an impact. Harris received a vote share almost identical to that received by his party in 1995. However, the same voting support that won the PCs 63 per cent of seats in the legislature in 1995 secured just 57 per cent of Ontario constituencies in 1999. A detailed analysis of voting patterns I prepared after the election identified at least eight of a total of 103 seats where strategic voting accounted for the defeat of the PC candidates (seven of those ridings were won by Liberals, one by a New Democrat). In five more constituencies this voting pattern narrowly missed defeating Tories. The Dalton McGuinty-led Liberals were the principal beneficiaries as the NDP continued to be hobbled by the unpopularity of the Bob Rae regime defeated in 1995.

The 1999 precedent suggests that similar behaviour in the 2015 federal election could be a factor in up to 40 constituencies. Let me draw attention to some ridings on the front lines of the strategic voting war.

In Winnipeg, the riding of Charleswood-Assiniboia-St. James-Headingley has long been assumed to be safely in the hands of former Harper cabinet minister Steven Fletcher. However, Liberal support is up dramatically in the province and a recent province-wide survey by Manitoba pollster Probe Research reports the Liberals and Conservatives tied at 39 per cent each. In 2011 the Conservatives won 53.5 per cent of the Manitoba vote versus 16.6 per cent for the Liberals.

Much attention has been paid to the possibility of three south-end Winnipeg ridings switching from Conservative to Liberal, but little to this west-end constituency. However, my seat projection model suggests this seat is ripe for the picking by the Liberals and strategic votes from the approximately fifteen to twenty per cent of the vote won by the NDP and Greens last time could make the difference. The fact that the NDP recently replaced its candidate here makes the chances of it happening even greater.

In Saskatchewan, where the NDP last won a seat in the 2000 election, there has been a similar decline in Conservative support from the 56.3 per cent they won in 2011 to somewhere in the low forties, while both NDP and Liberal support is up. Since the last election a significant redrawing of boundaries has opened up the possibility of deep erosion of the near-monopoly of seats held by the Conservatives (the exception in 2011 was Liberal Ralph Goodale).

Several New Democrats could end up taking seats in Regina and Saskatoon, possibly shutting out the Conservatives. A recent riding poll in Regina-Lewvan placed the NDP six points back of the Conservatives (note of caution: constituency polls don’t have a great track record and have a difficult time properly locating the residences of cellphone users). If enough Liberal supporters vote strategically in Saskatchewan’s cities for the NDP, several Conservative-held seats could fall.

In 1999, several strategic voting organizations set up in Ontario to endorse candidates. However, their organizational strength and financing paled in comparison to the political parties; their efforts were too little, too late. Political parties are highly organized in every constituency they think they can win. They knock on every door and make direct appeals to voters by phone. They build up databanks of “positive” supporters and pull them out to vote. Strategic voting advocacy groups simply cannot hope to match this.

Strategic voting in 1999 was a grassroots phenomenon on the part of highly-motivated voters. There are strategic voting groups active in this campaign with the resources to do their own polling — at least one is planning to call households on election day — but my guess is most voters who want to cast a strategic ballot will simply do it on their own, as they did sixteen years ago.

There are two weeks left until voting day, and the split in the polls that has opened up between the Liberals and the NDP suggests the Liberals will be the principal beneficiaries of strategic votes. But voters need to do their homework. Canada is a large and complex country. Those who feel strongly about getting rid of Harper ought to take their local, regional and provincial circumstances into account before making a decision.

No party should automatically get a strategic voter’s ballot if the point of it all is to replace the Harper government as efficiently and effectively as possible. The Harper government could be dispatched on October 19, and strategic voting could well play a role.