Not one ballot question but ballot questions
School of Journalism and Communication
At a TED Conference in February 2004, Malcolm Gladwell spoke about the works of psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz. While Moskowitz is best-known for his detailed study of the types of spaghetti sauces that Americans prefer, Moskowitz also played a role in attempting to create the “perfect” Diet Pepsi. Many years ago, Moskowitz was tasked to find out what was the optimal amount of aspertane to put into each can of Pepsi to make the “perfect” Diet Pepsi. While this appeared to be a very straightforward assignment, Moskowitz concluded that there was no such thing as a “perfect” Diet Pepsi, only “perfect” Diet Pepsis (plural). Moskowitz went on to refine his understanding of consumer behaviour and horizontal segmentation is a common strategic framework in commercial campaign development. What is the relevance of this story to the current election campaign is a legitimate question to ask at this point.
As it is the case in each election campaign, a lot of focus was put in the early days of the 2011 election to try to define the ballot question. Pundits and commentators mused about whether “corruption”, “protecting the fragile recovery”, or “the fear of - or hope for - a coalition” would eventually emerge as the main question voters would be asking themselves on their way to the ballot box. What would be the defining question of the 2011 Canadian Federal Election? Defining the ballot question is an age-old strategic concern and owns much to Ronald Reagan’s famed “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” which led to his 1980 victory. In Canada, the 1988 election is generally seen as the “Free Trade” election while the ballot question in 1984 and 1993 was simply “Is it Time for a Change?” But things appear to be different this time around.
Party strategists appear to have decided that Howard Moskowitz was right. There may be no such thing as a “perfect ballot question” in this election and it is more strategically useful to look for perfect ballot questions. The Tory campaign in particular appears to be devoid of the traditional overreaching appeal and is focusing on giving key segments of their electoral marketplace with very good reasons to support them on Election Day. The Conservative campaign rhetoric has moved far away from last month’s budget and in the absence of an actual platform document, Tories are making sure that ethnic minorities – which will be so important in several close ridings – may be asking themselves whether the Conservative Party has become the most in-tune with their needs and demands. Fiscally conservative voters can applaud the prudent course presented so far and go to the ballot box knowing that Conservative promises will not kick in before the budget is balanced. The Liberal campaign is behaving in similar ways. Instead of promising to build a “Just Society, Ignatieff Liberals are clearly hoping that middle-class families, seniors and commuters on the Champlain Bridge find their way to the ballot box to vote according to very narrow economic interests.
Targeted promises are not new in Canadian campaigns. But in the first few weeks of the 2011 election, horizontal segmentation has clearly replaced visionary appeals as the preferred way to woo voters.