For most of us election campaigns are spectator events. The parties attack, defend, feint, outflank, retreat and sometimes hunker down in the bunker. All the while we watch — or ignore the antics.
Our role as spectator changes, however, when we head off to the polls and a poll worker hands us a ballot. Suddenly we’re on the field. Participating, if only for an instant, with the ultimate power. The power to elect.
If you’re in Alberta and haven’t taken advantage of the advance polls, you have the opportunity to participate in the provincial elections on Tuesday. In PEI you get to vote April 23 and all voting Canadians can have their say this fall. Which brings me to an important question. If it’s not too personal, how do you decide who to vote for?
As a participant you have a decision to make. Not a ‘2% vs skim’ decision. A decision that actually matters. You are deciding which of your neighbours, who have offered themselves up to serve, should be entrusted to represent you and your other neighbours in Edmonton — or Ottawa or City Hall.
And while voting is important, how we make our voting decisions is equally important, for three main reasons:
- First, understanding how voters decide, allows those who work on campaigns to be more effective. Pushing policy on someone who votes based on character is like shouting into the wind.
- Second, it allows us to understand voting behaviour, even when it may otherwise appear illogical. You can actually explain to someone who would never vote Trump, why so many others did. This leads to the world making more sense, which increases our engagement and buy-in to the concept of making society better.
- Finally, understanding what drives our vote is important because it allows each of us to make a better choice when we’re handed that ballot.
I blogged about a similar topic in 2015 here: https://calgaryrob.com/2015/10/01/we-better-get-used-to-prime-minister-trudeau/. In that blog I predicted a Liberal victory in the federal election. But that blog was more specific to the factors in that election, where the country was tired of the Conservatives and the ballot box question came down to whether it was safe to vote for one of the alternatives. Today, I want to look at a broader range of drivers for how and why we decide who to vote for.
How We Decide
We can start by acknowledging that there may be an infinite number of ways people decide how to vote, but let’s not give up. A very high percentage, I’d estimate 90-95% plus, decide by one of the following methods.
Party Loyalty. Some folks vote for the candidate running for their preferred party. No matter what. This is sometimes referred to as tribalism, although it gets more complicated when parties merge, which is why so much effort is usually expended to make the combined party appealing to members of both prior parties.
Competence/character/leadership. Some people vote based on which Leader, or group of candidates, they believe will make the right decision when faced with the inevitable challenges that arise while governing. This can be hard to assess, especially if you prefer one party over another, as confirmation bias often leads us away from conclusions that someone more objective might reach.
Personality/Likeability. Others vote based on who they like better, whether it is the Leader or their local candidate. Sadly, this is why campaigns often resort to personal attacks on their opposition. Likeability matters more than you think, and arguably played a major role in the last federal election where Harper and Mulcair engendered some degree of animus outside of their respective bases, while Trudeau was much more personally popular at the time.
Policy. Some, though in my experience a depressing minority, delve into the policy issues of the day or those likely to confront the government going forward. To be fair, the task can be daunting. Whether it’s the economy, health care, education, taxation or social programs, when it is so hard to find objective information and the experts can’t agree, the voters can hardly be faulted for giving up and choosing a different method of assessing the choices. Even divisive social issues like funding abortions, equality issues and safe injection sites, where preferences are often more internal/intuitive than inquiry based, become pretty muddy after all of the misinformation that gets pumped out by the parties and candidates.
Single Issues. This is really a subset of the Policy category, and comes into play when a voter cares about one issue to a degree that they will vote based on which party they believe will best represent their view on that issue. This tends to be more important during leadership races and nominations, where the smaller pool of voters (party members) give single-issue voting blocks greater impact than during a general election.
Name recognition. Some people vote for the only name they recognize. Sad but true. Lawn signs matter.
Strategic Voting. This describes the practice of voting for your second (or third, fourth, etc.) choice, because your first choice can’t win and you would rather your second choice win than the candidate you are trying to defeat. This becomes a bigger and bigger category each election, primarily because social media and the internet has made it possible to organize effectively. Arguably, this isn’t really a separate category, but more of a way to bring about a preferred result with the preference having been formed based on one of (or a combination of) the other categories.
Of course, decision-making is a complex process, and most of us decide who to vote for using an amalgam of different considerations, but often one ends up being more important than the others. Once we understand the drivers, it becomes a lot easier to understand behaviour — ours and others.
In the US Democrats often tweet that they can’t understand how anyone could vote for Trump. The most likely explanation is that Trump’s voters are using a different criteria for making their voting decisions than the person expressing disbelief. If a Republican voter cares only about party loyalty, they will vote for the Republican nominee. If the policies Trump promises align with a voter’s view of the world, and that’s how they decide, they will vote for Trump. If closing America’s borders to immigrants and asylum seekers is their sole issue — Trump. Want to stop Clinton? Once he was the nominee, you had to vote for Trump. If any of those drivers are a voter’s dominant, or only, consideration, then that voter’s decision to vote for Trump was logical.
If those aren’t your drivers, if you are a voter focusing on Trump’s character (and disregarding the concerns about Clinton’s character), or centrist policies you prefer to Trump’s, you’re likely to assess the Trump vote as illogical. And it certainly appears to be, if you don’t put yourself in the Trump voter’s mindset. And of course it cuts both ways. Many Trump voters can’t begin to fathom how anyone voted for Clinton, for all the same reasons. While interesting, how the drivers affect your decisions is more important than understanding how others decide, unless you’re a campaign strategist.
In that vein I’d like to say that there is no right or wrong way to decide. I’d like to, but I can’t. I can’t because the wrong way to decide is to allow others to decide for us. That often takes the form of effective manipulation by a candidate, party or special interest groups. So when others try to manipulate, and we don’t resist, it may unduly influence us. We are submitting to their tactics — tactics that may cause us to make decisions in line with their goals, rather than our own priorities.
Such tactics are identifiable, often just by listening and employing common sense; and once identified, they can be factored out. Call it the My Cousin Vinny approach to evaluating political rhetoric. In that legal classic, Vinny, defending his cousin in a one-sided murder trial, prevails by picking apart the prosecution’s case, with simple logic applied after paying attention to the evidence and gathering relevent information.
When Republicans characterize Democrats as wanting to open America’s borders to let terrorists in, that should be a huge red flag, because it isn’t logical. Why would Democrats “want” that? Answer: they don’t. They are concerned about human rights, the cost of the border wall, and other issues.
Similarly, when Democrats accuse Republicans of wanting to make sure that low-income Americans don’t have health care, stop and tilt your head. Is that really what Republicans “want”. Of course it isn’t. What they want is a system that is less expensive or perhaps more efficient.
Border issues and health care are important, and should be debated. But how can the issues be debated in a way that advances society, when we start with a lie, and all too often a lie on both sides. Is it any wonder voters have focused less and less on policy?
If nothing else, keep in mind that the more outrageous the claim the more likely it is false and only being made to torque your emotions. If you react emotionally to a candidate’s comments, ask yourself if that was what they were intending? Is what they are saying accurate, or simply designed to move you to action? Action that benefits them, not you. Most every fundraising letter you receive, whether political or not, is guilty of this. Increasingly there is an array of sources that fact check campaigns, or at least the major candidates. Take the time to seek them out. If Vinny could figure it out, surely we can.
Understanding how you personally make your voting decisions is key in resisting the manipulation. If you are undecided heading into any election, take a minute and run through the list. How did you make your voting decision in the last election? How did that work out for you? Would a different category have served you better in making your decision? By better identifying what is important to you, you have a chance at making a decision more in line with your interests and values, and with society’s interests.
Even if issues don’t affect you directly, they might be important to you. Perhaps it is education, even if you’re older and don’t have kids or grandkids headed into the system. Or maybe it is more personal to you. Perhaps the economy is your main driver, because you lost your job. If you view one party as able to deliver on whatever is important to you, at least better than the other, they’re likely to get your vote. That may be true even if you have character concerns with your local candidate or the Leader. Maybe stopping a party you believe will be harmful (to the economy, to society, etc.), or ineffective, is top of your list. Whatever it is, make your decision consciously.
Perhaps it goes without saying but, however you decide, vote. It is trite, but if you don’t like what you see in public life, then you have the power through voting to change that. Conversely, when you disengage, sign off, refuse to participate and, in particular, fail to vote, you give that power back to those you’d like to see out of the system. Voting is the ultimate exercise of power.
Oh, and the next time someone questions your voting decision feel free to send them my blog and ask they how they decided who to vote for — if it’s not too personal.