Petty Elections: First Past the Post and Micro-Targeting Are Reducing the Incentive for Parties to Develop Big Ideas

This post was reprinted courtesy of the National Post on September 8, 2015 and can be found here.

From a policy perspective the 2015 Canadian election has, so far, been incredibly boring. From the Conservatives’ commitment to not tax Netflix and a home renovation tax credit, to the Liberals’ announced tax credit for teachers’ who buy school supplies, to NDP MP Brian Masse’s private members’ bill that would lower taxes for microbreweries (put forward just prior to the election) many of the promises the parties have made have lacked the wide-ranging scope that one would hope for in an election. There have been some policies that have large national scale implications, such as the NDP’s commitment to a $15 an hour minimum wage, but in general this election has been notable for parties’ small, limited impact, policies. This is the result of the combination of technology that allows parties to engage in micro-targeting and a first past the post electoral system that gives parties an incentive to ignore most voters.

In no election do parties have an incentive to appeal to all voters. Each party knows that there are voters will either vote for it regardless of the promises that it makes or will never vote for it no matter how hard it tries to appeal to them. The Conservatives, for example, have no incentive to adopt policies that appeal to rural Albertans who have voted for Conservatives (or Reformers) since Diefenbaker was Prime Minister because there is almost no danger that these voters switch to another party. Similarly, the Conservatives have no incentive to adjust their policies to try appeal to voters in East Vancouver who almost always vote NDP. Parties identify swing voters and try to find policies that appeal to those voters. Because swing voters are the ones most likely to change their votes, election campaigns become focused largely around the issues that are important to them. Each party tries to show that it is the party in the best position to serve the interests of those voters that are likely to change their votes from one party to another.

Micro-targeting is making it easier for parties to tailor their campaigns to particular groups of swing voters. Parties have an increasingly large amount of data that indicates to them which voters are considering voting for different parties, and what policies are most important to those voters. Data that tells parties which television programs or youtube videos these swing voters are likely to watch allows parties’ campaigns are directed largely at swing voters. Parties can focus their advertising towards those voters who are most likely to be considering (but not totally committed) to voting for them. They can even taylor the messages that are sent towards different groups of swing voters, ensuring that each group of voters hears about the party’s policies that are most likely to appeal to them. If a party finds, for example, that a lot of voters who care about security like to watch hockey games and a lot of swing voters who own homes watch the six o’clock news, it can ensure that its ads about security run during hockey games while its ads about home renovation tax credits run during the news. All of this means that parties’ campaigns can be more focused than they have been in the past. Where in past elections parties had to run broad national campaigns and hope that in doing so they managed to reach a large number of swing voters, parties can now run narrow campaigns that hit mostly on the issues that swing voters care about and spend little time dealing with the issues that other voters find important.

The incentive that parties have to focus their campaigns on certain sets of voters is increased by the first past the post electoral system. Parties’ ultimate goal in elections is not to win votes, but rather to win seats. The more a particular vote contributes to winning a seat, the more parties have an incentive to compete for it. Just as there are a large number of voters who are unlikely to change their votes, there are a large number of seats that are unlikely to change between parties. The NDP are unlikely to lose lower income urban ridings such as Vancouver East or any of the ridings in Hamilton while the Conservatives are unlikely to lose rural Western ridings. Parties do not have an incentive to appeal to swing voters in these ridings because such swing voters are unlikely to be able to change which party wins the seat. As a result, the number of voters who influence the outcomes of the election are quite small, and the number of voters that parties are trying to appeal to are equally small. Essentially parties are spending the vast majority of their energy trying to appeal swing voters who live in swing ridings. First-past the post systems, thus, effectively reduce the number of voters that parties will try appeal to. The increased data that parties have and the micro-targeting means that parties’ campaigns can now be very carefully designed to appeal to this small set of voters.

The narrow set of voters that parties are trying to appeal to influences that kinds of policies that parties bring forward. Rather than developing large, national, policies that affect large numbers of voters, parties have incentives to campaign on narrow policies that give benefits to the small groups of swing voters who are likely to influence election results. These policies look good to small segments of the electorate, but most voters could not care less about them. This is valuable to parties. The danger with large-scale policies is that they often have as many opponents as supporters. Large increases in spending on social programs are likely to alienate voters’ whose taxes are increased to pay for those programs. Broad tax cuts are likely to be unappealing to voters whose social programs are cut to pay for those tax cuts. Because small-scale tax credits and programs are relatively cheap, they do not carry the same risk of alienating voters that do not benefit. A small targeted program, like a home renovation tax credit; tax credit for teacher school supplies; or subsidy for microbreweries, is unlikely to cost enough to affect most voters. Parties have a choice between large national programs that benefit large groups of voters but also alienate large groups of voters, and small-scale focused policies that have benefits concentrated on small groups of voters but costs dispersed in a that is unlikely to affect most voters. In an election where a party only needs to change a small number of votes to win, the latter are the more attractive policy option.

This kind of campaigning presents a real danger to the quality of Canada’s democracy. It means that both campaigns and the policies that are introduced after them will be increasingly focused on the small segments of the population who are likely to influence election outcomes. This is great for those voters in a demographic likely to swing a significant number if ridings from one party to another, but it also means that those in other demographic groups will have difficulty getting parties and governments to pay attention to their concerns. It also means that it is going to be increasingly difficult to have broad national debates about important issues such as wealth inequality, the environment, or healthcare. Policies in these areas affect large numbers of individuals, and can impose substantial costs on many groups of voters. This kind of campaigning is problematic, because the policy areas that affect most people can also be the areas that parties have the least incentive to deal with. There is a real danger that parties will ignore issues of great importance if those issues do not affect the narrow set of swing voters they need to gain the support of in order to win an election.

Part of the purpose of elections is to push governments to act in the best interests of Canadians. This occurs most when parties are forced to appeal to the broadest group of voters possible. The more parties have the ability to use micro-targeting in campaigns and the more first past the post systems limit the groups of voters, the narrower parties’ campaign commitments will be. It is worth exploring other electoral systems and the way they change parties’ incentives to appeal to voters. Proportional representation systems for example, because they allow each vote to equally influence the number of seats a party wins, are likely force parties to respond to the concerns of a larger number of voters. These systems may offer a greater potential to force parties to talk about issues of national importance.

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Better Off Apart: If the Liberals Finish Third They Have Little Incentive to Join a Coalition

After three weeks of campaigning, polls in Canada’s federal election suggest that a minority government is likely. The NDP is sitting in first place with just 33% of the vote, likely not enough for a majority while the Conservatives and Liberals are hovering around 30% and 27% respectively. This has raised the possibility that Canadians will see a return to the minority governments of the 2000s, with the survival of the government contingent on support from at least one opposition party. The prospect of a minority government has led to speculation about the possibility of a coalition, with this Toronto Star piece suggesting that if the Conservatives fail to win a majority the NDP and Liberals will band together to form a government. While the NDP has suggested that it would be open to forming a coalition, Trudeau has rejected the idea. The Liberals have strong incentives to not to join a coalition with the NDP. Such a coalition would likely hurt them electorally and would limit their influence in parliament.

One of the largest barriers to a coalition in Canada is the presence of three parties with reasonable chance of winning elections. This reduces the incentive for whichever party finishes third to cooperate with one of the other parties. By forming a coalition, the third party hurts its ability to distinguish itself from its coalition partner and can begin to look irrelevant. This is particularly the case for the Liberals. An NDP-Liberal coalition with the NDP as the senior partner would likely benefit the NDP at the expense of the Liberals. The Liberals are currently fighting to demonstrate that they are both distinct from the NDP and are better able to form an alternative to the Conservatives and a coalition would undermine their ability to do both. It would require that the NDP and the Liberals agree on a policy program and would give them the exact same record in government. This would make it more difficult for the Liberals to distinguish themselves in subsequent elections. Additionally, by being the weaker of the two coalition partners, the Liberals would have trouble arguing that they are best positioned to keep the Conservatives from winning government. The loss of the ability to distinguish themselves and the appearance that they were the weakest of Britain’s major parties were significant factors leading to the decline of the British Liberals in the late 1910s and early 1920s. In a coalition the Liberals risk looking like a weaker version of the NDP, which would be problematic in future elections.

Entering into a coalition would likely divide the Liberal party. Because they are in the centre of the political spectrum, the Liberals have both voters who are closer to the Conservatives than they are to the NDP, and voters who are closer to the NDP than they are to the Conservatives. These voters would likely have differing views on a coalitions. The voters closer to the NDP would likely be quite comfortable with their party joining an NDP coalition, but the voters closer to the Conservatives would detest it. Because the coalition would move the Liberals to the left, centre-right Liberal voters (the ones closest to the Conservatives) would be likely to defect to the Conservatives. Voters closer to the Conservatives are likely to want to keep the NDP out of government, and a NDP-Liberal coalition would mean that the only way for them to do that would be to vote Conservative. This would weaken the Liberal party significantly, which in turn, would make centre-left Liberal defections to the NDP more likely. As centre-right defections strengthen the Conservatives, centre-left voters are likely to become more concerned about the possibility of the Conservatives forming a government. An NDP party leading a coalition government would look like the best bet to keep the Conservatives out of power, giving centre-left Liberals a reason to vote NDP. Joining a coalition would thus exacerbate a lot of the problems that Liberals face as a result of being in the centre of the political spectrum.

A coalition would also limit the Liberals’ options in parliament. In a coalition the Liberals would have to support whatever policies they agreed to at the beginning of the coalition government. Outside of it, the Liberals would be free to adjust their policy on a bill by bill basis. They could use the threat of a no-confidence vote to extract concessions on each piece of legislation proposed by the government. Because the Liberals sit in the middle of the political spectrum they could do this under either a Conservative or NDP government. On motions that are not confidence motions the Liberals would be even be free to join with the opposition to pass private members bills that the government opposes. In a coalition the Liberals would be committed to the support of a party and the agenda that it agreed to with that party. Sitting in opposition as the third party would force the Conservatives and the NDP to compete for Liberal support of each piece of legislation they want to pass. The Liberals have a much greater ability to extract policy concessions in the latter situation.

If the Liberals finish third in this election and no party wins a majority there will be a lot of talk of coalitions (especially if the Conservatives win the largest number of seats). The Liberals have good reasons to be nervous about a coalition. An NDP-Liberal coalition could do a great deal of damage to the Liberals likelihood of success in future elections. It would limit their ability to distinguish themselves from the NDP, weaken their party, and limit their parliamentary influence. A coalition with the Conservatives would likely have similar effects, with the Liberals losing their ability to distinguish themselves from the Conservatives instead of the NDP. As a result, the election of a minority parliament is unlikely to produce a coalition government.

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It Does Not Matter Who Wins: Trying to Pick a Winner in Multiparty Debates Misses the Fact that Different Leaders are Trying to Do Different Things

This past Thursday was the first leader’s debate of the 2015 election. This was the first opportunity that all four federal party leaders had to engage each other directly. Media (and political parties) often follow leader’s debates with discussions of who won and lost. Such discussion tends to look at who made stronger points or who presented themselves the best. The problem with this approach to analyzing multiparty leadership debates is that it misses the degree to which each leader is trying to do something different. Canadian leadership debates are not a single contest between four leaders vying for the same pool of votes, but rather multiple contests between pairs (and sometimes three) of leaders trying to win over subsets of voters. Because of this, picking a winner difficult. Thomas Mulcair and Stephen Harper, for example, might debate each other to what appears to be a draw, but both come out winners if doing so marginalizes Justin Trudeau and allows them to take votes from the Liberals. Harper could even be beaten by Mulcair, but still come out a winner if the debate makes it look like the election is primarily a contest between the NDP and Conservatives. With this in mind, this post will provide some thoughts regarding the different situations of each leader and the way that they handled the debate.

The leader in the easiest situation was probably Stephen Harper. With no parties to his right, his only substantial competitor for votes is the Liberal party. Additionally, the first past the post system in Canada means that he really only needs to win 37%-40% of the vote to gain a majority. He’s not there yet, but his task is relatively straight forward. He needs to take 7-8 percentage points from the Liberal party. Because he has no competition to his right, Harper can spend the entire debate (and the indeed the entire election campaign) focused on this one goal. The strategy for the Conservatives in this election is the same as the strategy they have pursued over the last four, try to win centre-right voters from the Liberals. It was no surprise then to see Harper spend most of the debate trying to convince Canadians that the economy is strong and making the case for middle class tax cuts and benefits. One way that Harper can do this is by engaging Mulcair in a debate over the economy that either overshadows anything that Justin Trudeau does, or makes Mulcair and Trudeau look like they hold the same position. This is the reason that Harper tried to make the economic debate about his record in government. As much as possible Harper wants to make the election a competition between him and Mulcair and while making Trudeau look like the less qualified and relevant of the two main opposition leaders. A debate over the economy between Harper and Mulcair is not a problem for Harper, because the votes he is trying to appeal to are unlikely to be agree with the NDP’s assessment of the economy or economic policies. When engaging Mulcair, Harper just needs to talk about why he is different, he does not need to try to convince voters. A debate with the NDP over the economy suits Harper because there are probably enough centre-right voters in the Liberal party willing to strategically vote against the NDP to give Harper a majority.

Engagement with Trudeau is a little more tricky. Harper can be successful if he can make the Liberals and the NDP look like very similar parties. If voters see both the NDP and Liberals as centre-left parties, the Conservatives can take the centre-right of the spectrum for themselves. Even if there are more centre-left voters than centre-right voters, split voting on the left should give the Conservatives a path to a majority. To that end Harper’s attempt engage the opposition as a whole instead of individually made a lot of sense. This is why Harper consistently referred to the opposition leaders as “those guys” and why his closing statement made no reference to the Liberals or NDP by name, but rather accused the opposition parties as a whole of seeking higher taxes and benefits. The less distinct the NDP and the Liberals are from each other, the more likely the centre-right is to back the Conservatives.

The person in the second easiest situation was likely Elizabeth May. Where Harper’s is trying to get 40% of the vote, getting to 10% would be seen as a win for May. Because her vote base is smaller, May can afford to take positions further away from the middle of the political spectrum. She can challenge the other leaders on the issues that she and her vote base care about without fear that doing so will prevent her from expanding her support. This comes through most clearly on environmental issues. May can present a principled critique of the other parties on issues such as pipelines because her potential supporters are all highly critical of pipelines. In contrast, both Mulcair and Trudeau are trying to win voters who are for and against pipelines and so have to be careful about taking positions to far in either direction. The challenge for May is to remain relevant in a debate where she is the least likely of the four leaders to be in a position to influence policy after the election. In this respect May did extremely well. Because she attacked the government’s record in an informed and well thought through manner, she was impossible to ignore. That she went after Mulcair at points also helped her by forcing Mulcair to engage with her on environmental issues. May did exactly what a small party leader is best able to do. She kept the other leaders honest by forcing them to respond to well thought through and supported attacks.

Like Harper, Mulcair is trying to capture enough moderate voters to win government, but Mulcair faces more competition than Harper. Mulcair’s best chance to expand his support lies in taking voters from the Liberal party. He therefore has an incentive to try to paint himself as the strongest critic of Harper and the most likely to defeat him. Unlike Harper though, Mulcair does not have a record to run on and the distinctions between the NDP and Liberals are less clear. The NDP has been moving to the centre of the political spectrum in order to gain votes at the same time as the Liberals have been forced towards the centre-left of the political spectrum by the Conservative’s success. The Liberals and NDP are increasingly competitors for the centre-left of the Canadian political spectrum. In order to win this competition Mulcair has to demonstrate that the NDP is the more competent of the Liberals and the NDP, and that his party is the more likely to the two to beat the Conservatives. The second task is difficult to accomplish in a debate, but the first task is certainly possible. This is why Mulcair’s comments in the debate included numerous statistical references, and he emphasized his ability to work with Premiers and world leaders as well as his work as Quebec’s Environment Minister. If the Liberals fail to distinguish themselves from the NDP and the NDP maintains its lead over them in the polls, the NDP stands a good chance of winning most of the anti-Conservative vote. The means that Mulcair does not have to outdebate Trudeau or Harper, he just needs to come off as moderate enough and competent enough to maintain his existing lead over the Liberals.

A second difference between Harper and Mulcair’s situations is that Mulcair faces an additional challenge in the form of Elizabeth May and the Green party. Mulcair has to be careful in the way that he positions the NDP in the debate. If he takes too strong an pro-environment position he could lose working-class voters afraid environmental regulations will cost them their jobs, but if he does not take a strong enough position he could lose environmentalist voters to the Greens. This is largely responsible for the heavy emphasis placed in Mulcair’s debating on sustainable development and mixing environmental regulation with economic growth. Mulcair can turn the presence of May in the debate to his advantage. May provides a nice foil between a moderate and more extreme position on a number of issues, including the environment, and allowed Mulcair to demonstrate how moderate the NDP has become. This came through most clearly in the discussion of pipelines where Mulcair characterized the Greens as opposed to all pipelines, the Conservatives as for all pipelines, and the NDP as the party that would carefully consider and approve only those pipelines that would be of most benefit to Canada. In doing so Mulcair presented a political spectrum to Canadians where the Conservatives occupied the centre-right, the Greens the extreme environmentalist position, the NDP the moderate left, and the Liberals where nowhere to be found. This is exactly the spectrum the the NDP needs to create if they are to be most successful.

Of all of the leaders in the debate, Justin Trudeau had the most difficult task. He has to carve out a distinct space for the Liberal party in a political world where the NDP is pulling away his centre-left voters, the Conservatives his centre-right voters, and the Greens can threaten his environmentalist voters. Trudeau was the only leader on stage who had to worry about losing significant numbers of voters to each of the other parties. He had to distinguish himself from the NDP in a way that did not cost him his centre-left voters while seeming centre-right enough to attract voters trying to decide between the Liberals and the Conservatives. He had to do this while making the case that, despite being third in the polls, his party still had a reasonable chance at forming the government. The easiest way out of this spot for Trudeau is to find some issue on which he can distinguish himself from the Conservatives and NDP while appealing to voters from centre-left and centre-right. This is why, in a debate occurring when support for separatism in Quebec is low, Trudeau decided to bring up the Clarity Act and national unity. Harper was having none of this, dismissing the discussion of the Clarity Act as not something Quebecers wanted to engage in. Mulcair was willing to engage Trudeau, but may have done well to position in his party in a way that will be appealing to Quebecers. Mulcair emphasized his involvement in the anti-separatist campaigns while also pointing to the problems that exist with federally determined and, ironically, unclear terms for a referendum on separation. Defending the Clarity Act may not be the best way for Trudeau to expand Liberal support in Quebec beyond the most hard-core federalist voters.

The complexity of this debate makes it incredibly difficult to determine a clear winner, especially without a few weeks of polling data to show whether public opinion changed after the debate. It was fairly clear that each leader understood their situation and the appeals made by each have a reasonable chance of resonating with the voters that they courting. Despite his difficult position, Trudeau did well (though his closing statement risks reinforcing the narrative that he lacks substance), but he likely did not do enough to either convince anti-Conservative that he presents the more viable alternative of the two main opposition parties or to raise the importance of an issue that can unite centrist voters in opposition to both the Conservatives and NDP. Harper and Mulcair did their jobs well, both positioning themselves as reasonable centre-right and centre-left parties respectively. Neither needed to win the debate, each just needed to show they were strong options for voters. Finally, Elizabeth May demonstrated the value of her inclusion in the debate and the important role that a party not in the running for government can have in challenging leaders to confront difficult questions and policy concerns. Looking at the debate in the broader context of the election suggests that there is not an easy way to determine a clear winner.

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