The End of Block Voting in Quebec? The Extent to Which Quebec Votes as a Block Has Been Steadily Declining

One of the more interesting results in the 2015 election was the Liberal resurgence in Quebec. Not since 1980 had the party won a majority of seats in the province and it was only the second time since 1980 that the party had a won more vote in Quebec than any other party (in 2000 won fewer seats than the Bloc Quebecois despite winning more votes). At the same time, the Liberal vote share in Quebec was remarkably low. Despite winning 40 seats (51%), the Liberals took just 36% of the popular vote. Four parties ended up being competitive in Quebec as the three major federal parties and the Bloc Quebecois all finished with more than 15% of the Quebec vote. The fragmentation of the vote suggests that left-right issues are becoming increasingly important to federal politics in Quebec. The presence of substantial numbers of voters in Quebec on the left and right of the political spectrum, coupled with the resiliency of the Boc Quebecois likely means and end to the phenomenon of Quebec voting a block for a single party.

Regional block voting is an important sign that the issues that are important to elections are regional. Every province or region contains left and right-wing voters. They may not be evenly distributed across the country, but no province is so dominated by the left or the right that a party can win the vast majority of votes by taking a particular left or right position. As was demonstrated in May, even a right-wing province such as Alberta has its fair share of left-wing voters. These left-right divides can become subordinate to regional concerns when elections are dominated by regional issues. Opinion on issues such as bilingualism, the power of provinces, and distinct recognition for Quebec is likely to break down along provincial or regional issues. When the most important issue in an election has to do with the way a particular region is treated by the rest of the country, voters in that region are likely to coalesce behind the party that is best able to demonstrate that it supports the region’s interests. Conversely parties that are seen as opposed to regions’ interests are likely to be shut out of the region. Even if voters in a particular region are split on the best way to address regional concerns (as Quebec was in the late 1990s when the Bloc Quebecois and Liberals split the province), they are likely to reject parties that fail to address the regions’ concerns. Through most of the 20th century, for example, the NDP was shut out of Quebec because of the extent to which its centralist views on federalism were at odds with Quebec’s interests. An examination of the extent to which voters in a region vote as a block can thus be an important indicator of the salience of regional issues.

The share of votes that the largest party in Quebec has one has declined steadily over time. Prior to the 1990s is was relatively common for the largest party in Quebec to take at least 50% of the vote in the province. The graph below shows that of the 15 elections between 1945 and 1988 the largest party in Quebec won at least 50% of the vote in 9 of them. In four years, 1949, 1953, 1979, and 1980, the largest party broke 60% with respect to popular vote in Quebec. In all four cases, the Liberals won large shares of the vote when Quebecois leaders (Louis St. Laurent and then Pierre Trudeau) ran against Progressive Conservative leaders who either showed little sensitivity to Quebec’s concern (as was the case with George Drew) or had limited links to Quebec (as was the case with Joe Clark). Since 1990, no party has manged to win a majority of the vote in Quebec. In 1997, 2008, and 2015 the share of the vote won by the largest party in Quebec dropped below 40%, something that only happened once between 1945 and 1988. Even the so-called “Orange Crush” that saw the NDP take a large number of Quebec seats in 2011 saw the NDP take fewer than votes than any of the largest parties in Quebec did in the elections between 1945 and 1988 other than 1962. The 2015 election was important in that it did not see Quebec vote for a single, pro-Quebec party. This trend had been developing over time, but was most pronounced in this election.

Vote Share of Largest Party in Quebec

When one looks at the strength of Quebec’s largest party compared to the strength of the largest party across the country, the 2015 election ends up looking more unique. The graph below shows that between 1945 and 2000, the strength of Canada’s largest party generally fluctuated between 40% and 50% of the vote, and then dipped below 40% in the elections that took place after 2000. Support for the largest party in Quebec has generally exceeded support for the largest party in Canada. The years between 1960s and 1980 stand out as years where this was especially the case. From the 1960s to the early 1980s, the Liberals were able to establish themselves as the defenders of Quebec’s interests in Canada. As a result they took a large share of the vote in the province. In 1984 and 1988, the Progressive Conservatives were able to take advantage of the Liberals’ alienation of Quebec (as a result of Trudeau’s patriation of the constitution without Quebec’s agreement) and cast themselves as the party willing to work to bring Quebec back into the constitution. Finally, in 1993, the Bloc Quebecois was able to capitalize on the Progressive Conservatives’ failure to bring into the constitution and win the votes of Quebec nationalists. The spikes in the share of the Quebec vote that the largest party in the province win coincide with a party being mobilize voters along Quebec-specific issues. The low vote shares won by the NDP in 2011 and the Liberals in 2015, by contrast, took place in elections were the importance of Quebec-specific issues were significantly lower than they had been in past elections.

Largest Party in Quebec Compared to Largesty Party in Canada

It is finally interesting to look at how the vote shares of the Conservatives and NDP in Quebec as they have evolved over time. The NDP and the Conservatives have never been particularly strong in Quebec issues (with the exception of Mulroney’s attempt to bring Quebec into the constitution in the 1980s). It would be difficult for either of these parties to grow in Quebec unless left/right issues increased their salience. The Conservative vote share actually remains relatively consistently around the low-teen to 30% range, with the exception of spikes under Diefenbaker (when the Liberals collapsed in Quebec) and under Mulroney. The Conservative vote share in Quebec in the 2000s and 2010s does not appear all that out of the ordinary compared to the party’s previous numbers in the province. The NDP in contrast sees two significant periods of growth. First in the early 1960s the party goes from barely any support at all in Quebec to just under 10%, Second, through the 2000s the party goes from under 5% to 40% of four elections (with the largest growth coming in 2011). In 2015 the NDP’s vote share dropped remarkably, but still was around 10% higher than it had been in any election prior to 2011. The stagnant Conservative vote share does not do much to suggest the growth in the importance of left-right issues, but the fact that the NDP has made significant gains in the province of the 2000s and 2010s is important.

Conservative and NDP Vote Shares in Quebec

The growth of the NDP in Quebec suggests that the issues that are important to Quebecers and the positions that they hold on those issues are becoming more diverse. Unlike the Bloc Quebecois or the Liberals, the NDP does not have a history of being a pro-Quebec party. Their ability to claim to represent Quebecers are nob-Quebec issues is quite limited. The NDP has to rely on its ability to appeal to Quebecers on left-right issues in order to win votes. At the same time, the NDP’s dominance on Quebec in 2011 may have been somewhat overstated. While the party won a large number of seats in the province, it also recorded one of the lowest vote shares of a largest Quebec party since 1945. In only five elections did Quebec’s largest party do worse. The Bloc Quebecois, despite winning only 4 seats managed to take 23% of the vote in that election while the Conservatives took 17% and the Liberals 14%. The fact that the Bloc Quebecois still managed to take almost a quarter of the vote in 2011 means that, even though left-right issues were growing in importance, issues surrounding Quebec’s place in Canada were still important to a significant number of voters. The vote in Quebec in 2011 was a lot more divided than the number of seats that each party took suggested, demonstrating that views Quebec about the issues that were important to the election and the positions that Quebecers had on those issues were diverse.

The 2015 election highlights the extent to which voting in Quebec is becoming fractured. The NDP despite losing large numbers of seats in Quebec still managed to take a quarter of the vote. This suggests that it was still able to use its position on the left of the political spectrum to appeal to Quebec voters. The Liberal party also did not make much of Quebec specific issues in its policy platform. With the exception of a discussion of the Clarity Act in the Macleans debate, the Liberal appeared mostly to try to appeal to Quebecers on left-right issues rather than by claiming to defend the place of Quebec within Canada. The Conservatives managed to pull 16% of the Quebec vote, which is consistent with the low but significant share of vote that has gone to Canada’s right-wing parties over Quebec’s history. Finally, the Bloc Quebecois, despite their decline, demonstrated that Quebec nationalism is still relevant to a significant minority of voters in Quebec. They took just under 1/5 of the vote. While that number is small, it is still significant. It is enough support to continue to win seats and to play an influential role debates within Quebec politics.

For most of the 20th century winning in Quebec was the key to winning Canadian federal elections. The Liberals dominated elections in the 20th century largely because they were able to count on large shares of seats from the province. The Progressive Conservatives were only able to win majority governments when they themselves were able to win large shares of votes in the province, in 1958, 1984, and 1988. In the 1990s and 2000s the Liberals and later the Conservatives were able to weaken the influence of Quebec over election results by winning large numbers of seats in Ontario. The influence of Quebec in future elections may also be limited by the decrease in block voting in the province. The emergence of the Bloc Quebecois in the 1990s made it difficult for the Liberals to win majorities if Quebec voters even in elections that were about Quebec-specific issues. The rise of the NDP through the 2000s has fractured Quebec politics to an even greater degree, and raises questions as to the extent to which Quebec-specific issues are influencing vote choice in the province. The consequences of this are mixed. As long as the Quebec vote remains fractured, it is unlikely that the largest party in Quebec will be able to pick up to 50-60 seats that they have been able to in the past. This will likely reduce the extent to which outcomes in Quebec determine which party forms government. Additionally, the distribution of these votes across ridings in the province means that candidates can expect to win with fewer and fewer votes as the vote becomes more divided. This will make small changes in vote shares more important, and likely will lead to significant swings in the number of Quebec seats each party wins from election to election.

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The Liberals Win Round 2: The Liberals Take an Important Step Towards Becoming Canada’s Centre-Left Party

October 19th might go down as one of the more anti-climatic election nights in Canadian history. Canadians who were expecting a tight race between the Liberals and Conservatives discovered very quickly that the Liberals were on route to their first majority government in 12 years. The Liberal victory is important to party’s future. After its 2011 third place finish, there were many Canadians that wondered if the party had a future in Canadian politics. In both the 2011 and in this election the Liberals ended up in a fight with the NDP over who would be the stronger of Canada’s centre-left parties. They lost this competition in 2011, if they had lost it a second time they would have had a difficult time convincing progressive Canadians to back them in future elections. The Liberals are now Canada’s strongest centre-left party, but the NDP should not be relegated to third place for the long-term quite yet. The Liberals have to run a centre-left and not a centrist government if they want to avoid an NDP resurgence.

One of the striking things about the 2015 election was how poorly the Conservatives did. This was their worst election since Harper took power, as the party won just 32% of the vote and 99 seats. It is unlikely that the party will continue to do this poorly in the future. The Conservatives were likely hurt by the poor economy and the inevitable drop in popularity that governments face after a long time in power. In only two elections since 1968, 1968 and 2004, has the centre-right won fewer votes than they did in this election. During the 1990s, 34%-37% of the voters backed either the Progressive Conservatives or Reform/Canadian Alliance. Between 2006 and 2011 Harper won the support of 36%-40% of voters. That suggests that 2015 is a low point in Conservative support and that they are due for a rebound in the next election. This will likely cost the Liberals some of the gains they made in this election. Some of the centre-right voters who were tired of the Harper government will likely move back to the Conservatives. To hold on to their government the Liberals will have to find votes on the centre-left in order to compensate for these losses.

The NDP, despite suffering large losses, is also far from dead. The party is actually fairly close to its 2008 election results. In 2008 the NDP won 18% of the vote and 37 seats, while in 2015 it won just under 20% of the vote and 44 seats. This may well be the third best result they have ever achieved, behind just 2011 and 1988. This should not take the sting out of the NDP defeat. The party needed to build on its success in 2011, or at least remain close to the Liberals in overall support, to cement its position as a competitor for government. The fact that it has fallen far behind the Liberals carries the significant risk that, in future election, progressive voters will see the Liberals instead of the NDP as the party best positioned to keep the Conservatives out of power. Justin Trudeau’s support for an alternative vote electoral system does not help the NDP’s prospects either, as the party would have difficulty competing with the Liberals under such an electoral system (for more on this see my previous post). The party, however, has been in this position before. It has a strong and committed base on the left of Canadian politics that will help it survive its 2015 losses and, with the Liberals winning a majority, it will have the freedom to critique Liberal policy from the left. If the Liberals are not careful, the NDP could end winning back many of the centre-left voters that propelled the NDP to official opposition status in 2011.

The threats that the Liberal party faced from both the right and left through the 2000s, thus, remain after this election. This may be, however, a different Liberal party. The Liberal governments of the 1960s and 1970s were based in part on large majorities in Quebec. In the 1990s they were based on complete dominance of Ontario. The Liberals did well in both provinces in 2015, winning 2/3rds of Ontario seats and half of Quebec seats, but this is not the 75% to 90% of seats that the Liberals would win in Quebec under Pierre Trudeau nor is it the near 99% of seats that Jean Chretien would win in Ontario. The mere 36% of the popular vote that the Liberals won in Quebec this election suggests that the party’s seats in the province may be particularly vulnerable if any of the other parties sees even modest growth in their support in Quebec. The Liberal party may have returned to government 2015, but they did not establish the kind of regional bases that have allowed the Liberals to dominate Canadian politics through much of the 20th century. They are far more reliant on ideologically progressive centre-left voters, as opposed to voters thinking about regional politics, than they have been in the past.

The Liberals have to be very careful about the way they govern if they want to retain their position as Canada’s major centre-left party. They cannot be a party that campaigns from the left and governs from the right, as they have been in the past.  They no longer have a strong regional base that can protect them from NDP incursions on their left flank. With the Conservatives likely to take votes from them on the centre-right of the political spectrum, the Liberal have to use their government to convince Canadians that they are a strongly centre-left party that will pursue progressive policies and keep the Conservatives out of the power. If they are successful they can make the NDP look irrelevant and compensate for likely losses on the centre-right by making gains on the left. If they fail, they could find themselves back where they were through the 2000s, a shrinking party being squeezed by parties attacking it from both the right and the left.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberal majority in this election was a major accomplishment. After the 2011 election the Liberals looked like a party struggling to remain relevant to Canadian politics. Spending part of August in third place did not help this. The party also faced a tough campaign with the Conservatives attacking the party on its right flank and the NDP on its left. Trudeau successfully avoided being squeezed in the middle by moving his party to the left and creating a competition between the Liberals and NDP to be the stronger of the two centre-left parties. He then managed to win the competition for centre-left votes and set his party up as the one best able to keep an unpopular Conservative government out of power. Trudeau’s reward for such a strong campaign has been the first election that has ended in a Liberal majority since 2000. If Trudeau wants to hold on to this majority he needs to convince those that voted strategically in order to end almost a decade of Harper governance to stick with the Liberals even when an election is not about getting rid of an unpopular Conservative government. He will also need to reach out to those that voted NDP so that he can compensate for losses to a Conservative party that will likely be stronger than it was in this election. This will require an extensive effort on the part of the Trudeau government to bring in strong progressive policies. If the Liberals are to be successful in future elections, they must not only run to the left, they must govern from it as well.

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Who Benefits? Alternative Vote, Mixed Member Proportional and the Future of the Liberals and the NDP

As the 2015 election campaign winds down, it is worth considering the Liberals’ and NDP’s electoral reform promises and the impact that they could have on future elections. Both parties have made commitments to replacing Canada’s first past the post electoral system. The NDP has put forward the most concrete proposal of the two parties, committing to adopting a mixed member proportional (MMP) system before the next election. The Liberals have promised to conduct public consultations on changing the electoral system. Justin Trudeau’s preferred system is alternative vote (AV) (otherwise known as a ranked ballot), but there is some division in the Party as to what electoral system should replace first past the post. The decision over whether to adopt AV or MMP has important long term consequences for both the Liberals’ and the NDP’s long term electoral success. Alternative vote systems will favour the Liberals while mixed member proportional system will favour the NDP and the Green Party.

Alternative vote systems and mixed member proportional systems work very differently. AV is very similar to first past the post in that prospective MPs run in ridings and parties’ representation in parliament is determined by the number of ridings that they are able to win. Unlike first past the post systems though, AV requires that candidates win at least 50% of the vote in their riding to be elected. Voters do not just select a single candidate, but rather rank order the candidates on the ballot. If no candidate has at least 50% of the vote after all voters’ first choices are counted, the last place candidate is eliminated and that candidate’s votes are redistributed to their second choices. This occurs until one candidate has at least 50% of the vote. In this system a candidate may be leading after all of the first place votes are counted but end up losing if the second (or third place) candidate obtains enough second choice ballots from losing candidates to overtake the original first place candidate. Alternative vote systems preserve the individual riding representation that exists under first past the post, but require that every candidate that represents their riding obtain at least 50% of the votes in that riding.

Mixed member proportional systems operate very differently. In MMP voters cast a ballot for a local representative and for a party list (these can be selected in a variety of different ways). Some MPs are elected in individual districts using the same method as first past the post systems, but additional MPs are added to the legislature in order to ensure that the number of seats that each party has reflects the proportion of votes that each party wins on the party list ballot. For example, a 100 seat legislature might be divided into 50 seats that are elected from ridings and 50 seats that are elected using the party lists. The Conservative might win 40% of party list votes, the Liberals 30%, and the NDP 30%. If in that election the Conservatives won 40 riding seats, the Liberals 10, and the NDP no riding seats, the Conservatives would get no extra list seats (because the number of district seats they won is equal to the percentage of list votes they received), the Liberals would get 20 party list seats, and the NDP would get 30 party list seats. That way each parties’ overall number of seats would correspond with the percentage of the party list vote they received. The idea behind mixed member proportional systems is to preserve some of the individual riding representation that exists under first past the post while also ensuring that each party’s overall representation in the legislature reflects the percentage of the vote they get nationally.

AV and MMP would treat the Liberals and the NDP differently. The Liberals stand to gain from the adoption of an AV electoral system. Because they are the party closest to the centre of the Canadian political spectrum, the Liberals are likely to be the second choice of both Conservative and NDP voters. In ridings where either a Conservative or NDP candidate finishes third the Liberals are likely to benefit. In both cases the Liberals are the party that is ideologically closer to the third place party, and thus the party most likely to be third place party’s voters’ second choice. In contrast, the distance between the Conservatives and the NDP ideologically means that the NDP are unlikely to pick up many second choice votes in ridings where the Conservatives first. The NDP only benefit from AV in ridings where the Liberals finish third and in which Liberal voters prefer the NDP to the Conservatives. While the Liberals’ move to the left means the NDP are likely the second choice for many of their voters, there are likely a few centre-right Liberals who still prefer the Conservatives to the NDP. The positioning of the Liberals between the NDP and the Conservatives makes them likely to gain the most second choice votes of any party and thus benefit most from the adoption of AV. Alternative vote systems are not proportional systems, and can make it very difficult for parties who are not close to the centre of the political spectrum to win seats.

An MMP system, in contrast to AV, would benefit the NDP. Under MMP voters would no longer have to worry about vote splitting. They could cast their party list ballot for the party that they prefer knowing that every party list ballot contributes to the overall percentage of the vote that a party wins and therefore the number of seats that a party receives in the House of Commons. MMP, like AV would protect both the Liberals and NDP from losing seats as a result vote splitting of the left, but it would not punish the NDP for not being the second choice of as many voters as the Liberals.

The NDP also would benefit from the way that MMP removes the link between geography and the value of different votes. In systems that use only ridings like AV and first past the post, votes only change the results of elections if they push a party past the threshold needed to win a riding (50% in AV and usually 35%-45% in first past the post). Running up the score in ridings that a party has already won does nothing to change the results of elections in either systems. Because the NDP is a left party, its voters are likely to be geographically concentrated in very urban areas and in working class and industrial parts of the country. As a result, the NDP vote is often not as efficiently spread across ridings as the votes of other parties such as the Conservatives. Growth in NDP support in places like Hamilton or East Vancouver does little to help the NDP in either first past the post or AV because the NDP is winning in those ridings by a large margin already. Under MMP, however, a voter can increase the number of party list seats a party wins even if the riding they live in is a safe NDP seat. Increases in party list votes always contribute to the number of seats a party holds, even if those votes come in ridings that a party is winning by a large margin. The inefficiency of NDP votes under first past the post mean that the NDP would benefit from a proportional system such as MMP.

The prospect of electoral reform has many progressive voters excited about the possibility that either a Liberal or an NDP government would be able replace Canada’s first past the post electoral system. Electoral reform, however, should not just be about replacing first past the post, the costs and benefits of different electoral systems have to be weighed very carefully. Different parties stand to benefit from different types of electoral reform, and that is likely influence the kinds of systems they support. Supporters of the NDP should be particularly cautious about voting Liberal in the hopes of getting a government that will pursue an electoral reform agenda. The AV system that some Liberals, including leader Justin Trudeau, supports would do significant damage to the NDP’s electoral prospects.

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Be Careful Strategic Voting: A Look at Where Strategic Voting Matter and Where It Does Not

As the 2015 election enters its last couple of weeks, the tight race between the Liberals and Conservatives has many progressive voters considering voting strategically in order to keep the Conservatives out of power. In my last post I wrote about how strategic voting might have long term costs for strong supporters of the Liberals or New Democrats, in this post I will look at how first past the post systems can complicate strategic voting. Because parties have different levels of strength in different ridings, strategic voting for progressives is not simply a matter of selecting the party on the left most likely to win the most votes nationally. The Liberals may be well ahead of the NDP in national polls but there are still several ridings where the NDP have a much better change of beating the Conservatives than the Liberals do. There are also a large number of ridings that are safe and where strategic voting will make little difference to the election outcome, and a handful of ridings where the Conservatives have little chance of winning but where the Liberals and the NDP (or NDP and the Bloc Quebecois) are in a close race. Strategic voting requires careful consideration and research into the kind of riding that one is voting in. In this post I will look at several different types of ridings and the strategic voting incentives in each of them.

In this post I try to give a rough account of the number of ridings that fall into each category. I have estimated this by using Three Hundred Eight blogger Éric Grenier’s riding projections. I use projections that were made with data from October 9th because they were the most recent posted at the time of writing. As the polls change the riding projections and the number of ridings that fall into each category will change. The estimates for the number of safe and competitive seats in this post are rough estimates and one should expect some fluctuations in these numbers over the next week depending on the extent to which polls change. I consider a riding safe if the party leading has at least a 75% chance of winning. Ridings are considered multi-party races if the high-end of the predicted range for the third place party is very close or within the low-end of the second place party’s predicted range.

Projections for individual ridings should be taken with a grain of salt. Because the projections that Grenier does are based on national and regional level polling they have a limited ability to take into account riding specific factors (such as the presence of a star candidate). Three Hundred Eight is a valuable resource for determining the range of seats that a party can win and in most ridings is the best reference point available for determining the competitiveness of a particular riding, but for the ridings in which riding-level polling has been done, that data is likely better for determining which parties are competitive.

Safe Seats

The majority of seats in this election are safe seats. There are about 217 seats in Grenier’s projections in which one party is 75% likely to win. In these seats strategic voting is of little value. Because the outcome in these seats is not in question, there is little value to changing one’s vote in order to either take the riding from the Conservatives or to keep the Conservatives from winning power. There may be value, however, in indicating the strength of each of the parties in the riding. In these situations voting one’s conscience is likely the best thing one can do. A surprisingly strong showing by a minor party in a riding can lead voters to see that party as competitive in future elections and might lead the party to benefit from strategic voting in the future. Such a vote may not impact the outcome of this election, but it could matter to future elections. A vote for a non-competitive party can also improve its support nationally. Strong showings nationally can indicate to all party’s the importance of adjusting their policies in order to adjust their policies to try to win the support of that parties’ voters. For example, if the Green Party wins a large number of votes other parties may adopt stronger environmentally policies in order to take votes from it. Because strategic voting is unlikely to change the party that wins a safe seat, voters in these ridings are better off using their vote to send signals to parties about their policy preferences than to trying ensure the non-Conservative candidate wins.

Competitive Races

A significant number of seats in Canada are also projected to be races between non-Conservative parties. There are about 43 ridings where the Conservatives are projected to be well behind the progressive parties, but in which some combination of the Bloc Quebecois, Liberals, and NDP are in a close race to win the seat. Because there is little chance of the Conservatives benefiting from split voting on the left in these ridings, strategic voting provides little benefit to progressives trying to keep the Conservatives out of power. The races in these ridings are far more about determining which of the Liberals or NDP emerges as the strongest competitor the Conservatives than they are about keeping the Conservatives out of power.

There may also be value to environmentalist voters supporting the Green party in these ridings. A Liberal loss to the NDP in a riding with strong Green support may force the Liberals to rethink their environmental policy. The same may be true for the NDP if the Greens are strong in a substantial number of ridings that they lose to the Liberals. Voting Green as a way to push parties to be stronger on the environment comes at less of a cost in these ridings than it ones in which the Conservatives are competitive, because doing so carries little risk of contributing to a Conservative victory.

Multi-Party Races Where the Conservatives are Competitive

The number of seats projected multi-party races in which the Conservatives are competitive is small. There are approximately 11 seats projected to fall into these categories. In principle strategic voting in these ridings can make sense as a way to keep the Conservatives out of power, but the problem is that the progressive alternative most likely to beat the Conservatives is unclear. When the Liberals and NDP (or NDP and Bloc Quebecois) are as strong as each other it can be very difficult to strategic vote effectively. In these races vote splitting could very well hand the Conservatives a victory, but coordination on the left to prevent this from happening is difficult to impossible. One may be best off voting for one’s preferred party and accepting that there is a danger that the Conservatives could benefit from split voting and that there is not a lot that progressives can do about that.

Clear Two-Party Races Involving the Conservatives

This leaves around 67 ridings that are projected to fall into this category. 43 of these are projected to be Conservative-Liberal races, 23 are projected to Conservative-NDP races, and in Fort Saskatchewan-Sherwood Park an independent (ideologically conservative candidate) as an outside chance of defeating the Conservative one. In these ridings strategic voting by progressives can be an effective way of keeping Conservatives out of power. Voters have to be careful to pay close attention to which of the Bloc Quebecois, Liberals, or NDP is best placed to defeat the Conservatives. The Liberals might be leading the NDP in national polls, but that does not necessarily mean they are best placed to defeat the Conservatives in any given riding. “Strategically voting” for the progressive party leading the national polls in a riding where the nationally third place party is running second could actually contribute to a Conservative victory in that riding. Strategic voters in one of the close two-party races involving the Conservatives should pay careful attention to Three Hundred and Eight’s projections as well as organizations such as Vote Together that have been doing riding level polling in some of the ridings in which the Conservatives are vulnerable.

Conclusion

Progressives’ concern over the potential for a Conservative government has led to a great deal of discussion of strategic voting. In some ridings strategic voting can play a role in keeping the Conservatives out of government. In a large number of ridings, however, strategic voting has a limited ability to influence results. In only around 67 (or 66 if Fort Saskatchewan-Sherwood Park is not counted) of 338 ridings is there a clear progressive candidate whom strategic voters can flock to in order to defeat the Conservatives. That works out to about 20% of Canada’s ridings. That number will fluctuate over the last week of the election, and it is not insignificant. At the same time, most Canadians will find themselves in ridings where strategic voting has limited value. These ridings are either safe ridings, races between the progressive parties, or races in which it is not clear which of the progressive parties has the best chance of beating the Conservatives. Voters should be very careful about the way that they approach strategic voting in this election.

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This Election is Not Just About Harper: Strategic Voting on the Left Comes at a Cost

This post was reprinted courtesy of the National Post on October 16, 2015 and can be found here.

A number of polls over the previous week of the election showed the Conservatives with a reasonably clear lead in the election and almost moving back into majority territory. Though the Liberals have managed to catch the Conservatives once more, the surge in Conservative support has led many progressive Canadian to consider voting strategically.  In the short-term this has merit, especially given the problematic rhetoric that’s used by the Conservatives to describe refugees and other immigrants. Over the long-term, however, this may have important and problematic consequences. This election is not just an election to determine who forms government, but it will also play a role in determining which of the two centre-left parties becomes the main competitor to the Conservatives in future elections. With the Liberals and NDP in a fight to become the major party of the centre-left, the outcome of the competition between the non-Conservative parties will have important implications for several future elections.

Over the course of the last few elections the Liberals have been moving left while the NDP have been moving to the centre. The result has been a convergence of the two parties that has many treating them as interchangeable. While The Liberals and NDP are a lot closer ideologically than they have been historically, there are still important differences between the two parties. In the past I have written about how the NDP’s commitment to a balance budget and the Liberals willingness to run budget deficits suggests not that the NDP are to the right of the Liberals, but rather that the NDP are concerned more about long-term inequality while the Liberals are more concerned about short-term economic stimulus. The NDP has demonstrated a greater commitment to government programs promising a $15 a day childcare program and significant increases in healthcare spending while the Liberals have sought to cut taxes for low and middle-income Canadians and rise them on high income Canadians. Both platforms are left-wing, but the NDP’s is still more social democratic than the Liberals’. To add this, the NDP voter base is more left-wing than the Liberals and over the long-term that will pull the NDP to the left. In comparison, long-time Liberals in the centre of the political spectrum may prevent the Liberals from adopting policies that move too far to the left. Despite the convergence of the two parties over the past couple of elections, they remain different parties with different underlying ideologies.

This election is also not just about progressives trying to replace the Conservatives, but also about which of the Liberals or the NDP will emerge as the major centre-left force in Canadian politics. The Liberals have been the historically dominant party in Canadian politics, but they were also a strongly centrist party. At times they were closer to the parties on the right of the political spectrum than those on the left, the Liberals’ 1995 budget cuts reflected policy commitments far closer to the Reform party than to the NDP. The Liberals move to the left of Canadian politics over the last couple elections and the growth of the NDP has created competition of the centre-left of the Canadian political spectrum. As noted above, the differences between the two parties are still meaningful, but they are also close enough to each other that the party that emerges stronger could make large gains at the expense of other simply because of strategic voting.

The outcome of the next two or three elections will thus have important implications for future elections. If one of the Liberals or NDP manages to emerge as the clearly stronger party, they are likely to be able to cast themselves as non-Conservative voters’ best chance at keeping the Conservatives out of power in future elections. This would do a great deal of damage to the weaker centre-left party. That party will have difficulty convincing voters that it has a reasonable shot at forming government, and thus that its policies should be taken seriously. It will have to convince its voters not only that its policies are strong, but that voting for it is worth risking a split of the left vote that puts the Conservatives in power. This is likely to mean the end of the weaker party’s ability to compete government and less influence over the policies that are adopted in Canada. If the Liberals can consistently outperform the NDP, elections are likely to become Liberal-Conservative races, and the NDP will have less long-term influence over policy than the Liberals. Conversely, if the NDP emerge as the stronger party, elections are likely to become NDP-Conservative competitions and Liberal influence over policy will be reduced.

The 2015 election is thus not just a competition between the three major parties to form government, but it is also a competition between the Liberals and the NDP to determine the nature of Canada’s centre-left alternative to the Conservatives. If the NDP win this competition, Canada will see for the first time in its federal political history a social democratic party competing for government. Like all parties, the NDP will have to move to the centre to win government, but it is likely to retain its social democratic ideological principles. Any NDP government will be a government with moderate policies, but it will also be a government that sees value in government programs and in using balanced budgets to address long-term social and economic inequality. If the Liberals become Canada’s major centre-left party, it is likely that the need to win left votes to beat the Conservatives will keep them from reverting back to the Chretien/Martin era Liberal policies that saw the Liberals make sizable cuts to federal spending on social programs such as healthcare. At the same time a Liberal government is more likely to pursue short-term economic stimulus projects as opposed to long-term projects such as $15 a day care, that are designed to tackle inequality over the long-term. Over the long-term winning the competition on the centre-left of the spectrum is important, even if the Conservatives win this election. A centre-left party that finishes second to the Conservatives will be in a better position to win future governments than one that finishes third.

It should finally be noted here, that there is long-term value to finishing second or third in individual ridings. Part of the idea behind strategic voting is to have centre-left voters rally around the centre-left candidate most likely to win the riding in order to keep vote splitting from handing the Conservatives the riding. In ridings where the Liberals and NDP are in a close race to be the strongest non-Conservative party, finishing ahead of the other centre-left party can be important even if it does not lead to winning a seat. If a party finishes second to the Conservatives in enough consecutive elections it will start to benefit from strategic voting on the centre-left and eventually take on the Conservatives. Voters in ridings where the Liberals or NDP are in third place but close enough to the other centre-left party to have a conceivable chance of finishing ahead of it in this or the next election should be careful about strategic voting. Demonstrating that the weaker of the two centre-left parties still has strong support can help that party grow and become competitive in the riding in future elections. Flocking to the largest of the centre-left parties will make the weaker of the two parties look completely uncompetitive, preventing it from building support in the riding, and from ever competing to win it.

None of this is to suggest that finishing third in this election will mean end of the Liberals or the NDP, nor is it to suggest that doing so will mean the party has no influence over policy. Parties can survive as small third parties and influence policy in minority government situations or by threatening to take votes on the left or in the centre of the political spectrum (depending on the party). This influence though will be far less than what the Liberals or NDP can gain from becoming the major party on the centre-left of the political spectrum and the main challenger to the Conservatives. Both Liberal and NDP voters have something to lose by strategic voting. New Democrats strategically voting Liberal are risking losing the opportunity to see a social democratic party win government in Canada while Liberals strategically voting NDP risk conceding control of the centre-left to a party more informed by social democratic principles than by the liberal ones that they prefer. This does not mean that centre-left voters should not strategically vote. There certainly is short-term value for progressives to keeping the Conservatives out of power and that should not be discounted. At the same time, the long-term costs of finishing third in this and the election should force Liberals and New Democrats to think very carefully about the trade-offs that they make when strategic voting.

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