Strategic Voting: Left and Right

A first-past-the-post multi-party system is rife with strategic voting. Usually, supporters of smaller parties vote for the centrist party closer to their preferences to prevent the centrist party they dislike from winning.

On the left, the Liberal Party has long encouraged NDP and Green adherents to vote strategically to defeat the Conservatives. What is new in this election is the rise of the right-wing libertarian People’s Party of Canada (PPC), which, according to today’s CBC Poll Tracker, has the support of 6.4 percent of the electorate nationally, a significant increase from the paltry 1.6 percent it received in the 2019 election. Erin O’Toole’s decision to run a centrist campaign has alienated enough of the Conservative base to energize the PPC. You can see it on the PPC’s YouTube channel which has huge viewcounts for its postings though they are lengthy speeches rather than short ads.

The PPC’s support is widespread, and is creating a major problem for the Conservatives, whose vote it is cannibalizing. In Ontario, the Liberals lead the Conservatives by 4.4 percent in the popular vote, but the PPC has 6.8 percent. In British Columbia, the Conservatives lead both the Liberals and NDP by 2 percent, but the PPC has 5.5 percent. In Atlantic Canada, the Liberals lead the Conservatives by 11.6 percent, but the PPC has 6.1 percent.

Targeting the Strategic Voter

How can a centrist party encourage strategic voting? Here are three tactics.

First, it can run attack ads against the other centrist party, thus signaling to the electorate that it is the most viable alternative. In the final week of the campaign, both Liberals and Conservatives are running attack ads against each other to send that message.

Second, ideological influencers on each side of the political spectrum could encourage strategic voting. Possible influencers on the political right in this election would include Preston Manning, Stephen Harper advisers like Jenni Byrne and Ian Brodie, and the Big Kahuna himself. So far, to the best of my knowledge, none of those influencers have been sending a message of “unite the right to defeat the Libs.” There are a few days left, however, and maybe they will.

A third alternative is for the local candidate to tailor their message to the context of the constituency. The constituency in which I live, Don Valley West, has always been a two-way Liberal-Conservative fight. In 2011, Conservative candidate John Carmichael defeated Liberal candidate Rob Oliphant by 600 votes (22,900 to 22,300), with the NDP taking 6300 and the Greens 1800. In the 2015 election, Oliphant’s campaign made the argument that if voters wanted to defeat Stephen Harper, the only way to do it would be to vote for Rob Oliphant. The campaign produced a mock ballot with the name Rob Oliphant on the red line and the name Stephen Harper on the blue, orange, and green lines. (Personal disclosure: I was involved with Oliphant’s campaign.) Conservative candidates in swing constituencies where the PPC vote could make the difference will be making a similar argument to conservative-leaning voters.

The Upshot

Over the next few days, I will be watching the polls very carefully to see if there is any evidence of the PPC vote either growing or slipping. In this case, the regional breakdown is of greater significance than the national breakdown.

If the PPC remains at its current level in the polls, then Conservatives can only hope for a reverse-Trump phenomenon. In the 2016 election “shy” Trump voters didn’t admit their choice to pollsters and in the 2020 election, they didn’t talk to pollsters. Will voters who told pollsters they will support the PPC, when they ultimately sit behind the cardboard privacy screen, place their X beside the name of the Conservative Party of Canada candidate?

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