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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