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André Turcotte, Ph.D
School of Journalism and Communication
The May 2nd election is around the corner and widely divergent polls have introduced some elements of suspense in the 2011 campaign. Depending on who you choose to believe, the Tories have either a 19, 12 or 9-point lead over either the Liberals or the NDP. Most, if not all of the excitement has been generated by the apparent surge in NDP support in the province of Quebec. According to the data released at the end of last week, NDP support in Quebec is solid anywhere between 23% and 36%. However gripping this tale of numbers may be, what the leaders have to do in the next few days is akin to what salespeople are facing everyday; leaders have to find a way to close the sale for their respective parties.
Without going into the intricacies of our electoral system, it is generally understood that a certain level of support in vote share does not translate directly into a similar proportion of seats. One only has to remember the 1997 election when both the Reform Party and the PC Party received 19% of the votes but Reform became the Official Opposition with 60 seats and the PCs lingered in fifth place with only 20 seats. Accordingly, last-minute appeals to segments of voters and “Get-Out-The-Vote” (GOTV) efforts are imperative to ensure that supporters head to the polls on Election Day.
Looking back at the last four general elections, we can discern some patterns that should embolden some and discourage others. The Conservatives have become increasingly efficient in translating votes into seats since the 2000 election. Back then, the Conservative predecessor – the Canadian Alliance – garnered 26% of the votes and 66 seats. The Conservative seat share increased to 99 (with 30% of the votes) in 2004 to eventually 143 seats in 2008 with 38% of the votes. In contrast, the Liberals have become increasingly worse at doing so over the same period of time. They did really well in 2000 with 41% of the votes and 172 seats. Their vote share went down to 26% in 2008 and won only 77 seats. It is generally argued that in this new environment where low information and low interest prevail, issue-based appeals such as those generally favored by Conservatives have a mobilizing impact on supporters who have self-interest to cast a ballot. In recent elections, the Harper Conservatives capitalized on specific proposals such as the GST cut, their crime agenda and specific family-friendly policies. In this election, Harper is betting that concern over the economy, a set of immigration-friendly policies and a need for stability will be sufficient to galvanize his voters.
For their part, old-fashioned brokerage parties – such as the Liberals – find it more difficult to mobilize a disinterested electorate which may not readily identify a reason to go to the polling booth. Dion’s Green Shift is one example of a policy proposal which may have had broad appeal but was lacking in the day-to-day relevance necessary to push disengaged voters to get out and vote. Ignatieff has made more specific appeals and he hopes that the Family Pack and the Education Passport will tap into the self-interest of enough voters to at least improve on his predecessor’s performance and get a chance to keep his job.
The Bloc has a simple sale strategy and Jacques Parizeau’s call for PQ voters to rally behind their federal cousins sums it up, The NDP is in an interesting situation. New Democrats have been getting noticeably better at translating their comparatively low vote share into seats. In 2000, they received 9% of the votes for 13 seats. In 2008, the NDP doubled its vote share to 18% but almost tripled his number of seats (38). Their appeal has always been narrow and specific. In this election, Jack Layton has tried his best to broaden his party’s appeal. He has emerged as a very popular spokesperson for the NDP brand and more and more voters are “kicking the tires” and considering voting NDP. This is not necessarily issue-based but more a result of the personal appeal of the Leader. But personality-based voting is mainly impulse-buying. The challenge for Layton and his troops is to keep the interest and attention of a fickle electorate for just one more week.