• Sep 30, 2019
  • Insights

How voters decide

How voters decide

By Allan Gregg

When I first got involved in political campaigns, my mentors warned me of the rule of plus or minus 6%.

Basically, this rule suggested that if, at the beginning of the writ period, you were more that six points ahead, all you had to do was create a catchy campaign jingle and dance the voters to the polls, because you couldn’t lose. If you were more than six points behind, kiss your chances goodbye because you couldn’t win.

The rule applied because, for the most part, voting patterns were pretty stable back then. And the root of that stability was partisan identification –  in the 1970s and the early part of the 1980s, most voters identified with one of the political parties; part of their self-identity was that they considered themselves to be a Liberal, Progressive Conservative or New Democrat. Partisan identification then formed the screen through which voters evaluated political events and made their voting choice fairly straight forward. If I was a Liberal, I didn’t have to think too much about how I felt about Pierre Trudeau or the Liberal Party platform – they were terrific!

Not only did partisanship make the vote more stable, it also motivated voters to turnout. Because I identified with one of the parties, I was a member of a “team” and of course, I would go to the polls to support my team.

Anyone who is involved in campaigning today knows that much has changed.

As we all know, what caused this erosion of partisan identification over the last three decades was the growth of political cynicism and the increasing inability of voters to see themselves or their interests reflected in political leaders, parties or platforms.

Today, fewer than one-in-five voters consider themselves to be a partisan. Minus this root and filter, voting has become much more volatile and turnout has diminished. Indeed, recent post-election studies have indicated that as many as a third of the electorate will switch their voting intention over the course of a campaign, with between 10 and 15% claiming they made up their mind on election day or even in the ballot box. Instead of the rule of plus or minus 6%, the prevailing wisdom of modern politics is that “campaigns matter”.

But the less considered side of political cynicism and volatility is that for voters today to make a political choice, they have to actually follow and evaluate political events, leaders and platforms more closely than they did in the past. Absent a partisan frame-of-reference, I have no pre-judged disposition towards Andrew Scheer, for example. I may like what I see today and lean towards voting Conservative and may not like what I see tomorrow and change my mind.

As much as brilliant behaviour psychologists like Daniel Kahnemen have taught us that choice – be it consumer, personal or political – is often not reasoned or calculated in a measured way, the evidence still suggests that voters make political decisions based on self-image and self-interest. Even if the criteria they use to make political decisions may be emotional and irrational, they decide who to vote for by asking two questions – “who is most like me?” and “who is most for me?”

When campaigners talk about “framing the ballot question” this is the context in which political messaging and policy is made. When the Conservatives say they want to abolish the carbon tax, they are sending a signal to tax weary voters that “I am like you and I am for you”. When all parties zero in on housing affordability they are sending the same signal to millenials, who fear they may never own a home. They are trying to align their leaders, priorities and policies with popular zeitgeist and prevailing public mood.

Campaigns that have mattered most – and thereby been the most effective – are the ones that have tapped into this prevailing mood most successfully.

In 1980, Ronald Regan famously queried … “Ask yourself if you are better off today than you were four years ago?” Thirty-six years later, Donald Trump offered an identical campaign promise to “Make America Great Again”. Both were mining a vein of popular sentiment their opponents had missed. In 1980, for the first time since WWII, American voters were sensing that the promise of progress might be available only to some. In 2016, the single best predictor of Presidential voting was not age, race or geography, but the response to the question … “Do you believe the best years for America are in front of us or behind us?” – 80% of Hilary Clinton voters chose the former answer and 80% of Trump voters chose the latter.

So far in this campaign, the dominant focus for all parties has been on affordability and the middle class. The reason for this is because – for the first time since the early 1980s – Canadians are saying that the issue that concerns them most is the cost of living.

We have also seen very little movement in voter choice, suggesting either that voters have yet to fully engage or pay attention to party messaging or that the main players in the campaign have yet to differentiate themselves or align their messaging with concerns that run deeper than the surface issue of “affordability”.

Of the two possibilities, I suspect that the latter is more at play.

In our own research, we asked a very simple question …. “In the next two or three years, do you expect to be better off, the same, or worse off than you are now?” One third of the population reported that in the near future, they expected to be prospering and moving forward. Identical numbers felt they would be stagnating and the bottom third believed they would be falling behind and going backwards.

The results are revealing and suggest that the current tactic of playing “small ball” and offering boutique taxes to selected groups of voters is hardly going to satisfy two-thirds of the population who believe that progress is eluding them.  When you feel you might lose your home, an offer of a tax break to renovate your dwelling to make it more environmentally friendly is unlikely to be perceived as an adequate solution to your problem.

This is a profound cleavage in public opinion and marks a significant change in our socio-political culture.  It also suggests that calls for a wholesale change will be more likely to mobilize voters than incrementalism.

While it has yet to surface in any meaningful way in Canada, this sense of inequity – and the vastly different experience that different segments of society are undergoing – is the same force that is driving nativism and polarization in U.S. politics.

We should be grateful for this … but not complacent or too self-satisfied.

At roughly the same time, Leger Marketing was in the field and asked a nation-wide sample of eligible voters whether they would be … “in favour or opposed to a ban on wearing visible religious symbols for civil servants in your province?” Nationally, the results showed a population divided in half, with 44% supporting a ban and 43% opposed. The only region where a solid majority were opposed was in B.C and even there, 31% were in favour of such a ban.

Knowing how voters decide, you can’t help but wonder how long it might be before one or more of the political parties attempts to till this soil and augment the theme of affordability with a stronger differentiator or concerted attack on “elites” and “the other”. It also makes you wonder if adding Maxime Bernier of the Peoples Party to the upcoming Leader’s Debate isn’t a lot more significant than we might have first thought.

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