In the political machinations business it’s commonly accepted wisdom that the ‘ballot box question’ is the single biggest factor in determining the outcome of the election. The ballot box question, to make sure we’re all on the same page, is the question the voter is asking himself/herself in deciding how to cast their ballot.
In this race the Conservatives would love for the question to be: which party will keep me the safest (either physically or economically)? The opposition parties are depending on the question being, ‘how do I best get rid of Stephen Harper?’ Note that this second ballot box question, by definition, is not one that the Conservatives can win the day on (of course they might win if the anti-vote splits evenly in the right ridings, but the question itself is an inherent loser for the Conservatives) – which brings me to my favourite theory of what elections are about in Canada today.
Did you see the movie Marathon Man in the 1970’s? If not, I think the limitations on spoiler alerts has run, so here is the synopsis. Dustin Hoffman plays the brother of a government agent. Hoffman’s brother is involved in some shady doings with Nazi war criminals and ends up getting murdered as a result. Laurence Olivier is a Nazi war criminal, who concludes, wrongly, that Hoffman knows whether it is safe for him to go to a bank in Switzerland and retrieve some diamonds that are stashed there.
Olivier then kidnaps Hoffman, straps him into a dental chair and asks him “Is it safe?” He asks the same question, over and over. “Is it safe?” Hoffman has no idea what Olivier is talking about and therefore can’t stop the interrogation. Olivier doesn’t elaborate, and Hoffman remains in the dark. Olivier then starts drilling into Hoffman’s teeth as a crude form of torture, to extract the information Hoffman doesn’t actually have. Gruesome stuff.
That is politics in Canada today. In recent elections in BC and Ontario, the electorate were more or less done with the governing party, but the ballot box question became: is it safe? Is it safe to vote for the alternative (NDP in BC and Conservative in Ontario)? By and large the electorate concluded that it wasn’t and they turned away at the last minute, giving the governing Liberals another mandate.
Similarly, in Alberta in 2012 the electorate was tired of the PC’s, but last minute gaffes by the Wildrose convinced enough voters that it wasn’t safe to put them in office. Alberta in 2015 had a different result. The ballot box question was: how do I get rid of the PC’s. Full stop. I wrote about that here: https://calgaryrob.wordpress.com/2015/05/12/if-you-build-it-they-will-come/. The NDP won a crushing victory.
The same dynamic has been operational for years federally. Just ask Dion and Ignatieff who were each judged by the electorate as being “not safe”. Today it is fairly obvious that a strong majority of the electorate would like to see the Conservatives replaced. In a plethora of recent polls 68-70% would vote for someone other than the Conservatives. But the ballot box question is not yet set. It is firming up, but there is still 2 ½ weeks to go. Anything can happen.
Which brings me to my prediction. About 6 weeks ago I began predicting a Liberal minority. At that time the Liberals were in third place, and dropping, so it seemed a bold pick. Less so today – but my prediction hasn’t changed.
I see the Liberals winning because while the ballot box question isn’t yet set, if something doesn’t happen it will be ‘How do I best get rid of the Conservatives?’ This is because no other ‘real’ issue has displaced what is essentially a popularity question. And outside his base, Harper is not popular. The economy isn’t great, but we’re not going off a cliff (except in Alberta). National unity issues are at a low ebb. Trade issues, international security, crime, citizenship, privacy – none of these issues has risen to the top to dominate, beyond short bursts.
If any basket of issues seem to have traction, they are the ethical and democracy issues. The scandals. There have been enough of them, and the Duffy trial has placed them onto the front page repeatedly. For many they are top of mind, and motivating. This is particularly true for those who want to replace Harper, no matter the cost. That doesn’t bode well for the Conservatives.
If that doesn’t change, the real question is whether the NDP or the Liberals come out on top, or whether vote splitting allows a Conservative victory despite the ballot box question. The Conservatives are exceptionally skilled at focusing on the right ridings, with the right message, so don’t count them and their considerable war chest out. But my sense is that the Liberals are going to bury the NDP. Here’s why.
As a starting point, provinces that have had an NDP government provincially have very limited upside for the NDP, because the economy of those provinces suffered as a result of ideological decisions (Manitoba is the exception). The electorate had that experience first-hand, and many anti-Harper votes simply aren’t available to the NDP. Essentially, the NDP won’t fare well if the question is ‘is it safe?’
Secondly, those who don’t want Harper for non-policy reasons (his perceived style, angry persona, ruthless, autocratic) won’t be any happier with Mulcair, whereas Trudeau offers something completely different in virtually every respect (which is both good and bad).
Thirdly, beyond the CPC’s hard-core base, the main reason to continue voting Conservative is fear over what an NDP or Liberal government might do to the economy. This is the “is it safe?” ballot question the Conservatives would like to put in our minds before voting day. In Trudeau’s case enough voters will be able to suspend that fear on the rationale that the Liberal establishment will support Trudeau and offer government that may not be ideal, but won’t be a disaster. This is bolstered by the fact that Trudeau may not have won the debates, but he out-performed expectations. My sense is that the mood to replace Harper is strong enough that many swing voters will accept the risk that comes with Trudeau.
Finally, and critically, as it becomes more clear that Trudeau is the choice if you want to replace Harper, the NDP soft vote will migrate to the Liberals, similarly to what occurred in Alberta when the electorate just wanted to get rid of the PC’s in 2015.
On that final point, there are scenarios where the Liberals do better than a minority. If the NDP vote suffers a partial collapse, it doesn’t take much for the Liberals to eke out a majority if the Conservatives remain at 30-32%.
Of course the Conservatives could still pull it out, but with each point the NDP drops in the polls I believe that becomes increasingly unlikely.
In the end, you get the final say. So vote – but just make sure that you practice safe voting.