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Parliament took its summer recess last week. MPs return to their riding looking for signs of support, and indications of dissatisfaction. Political scientists proceed more formally to assess how parties are performing. How many citizens qualify as partisans of one party or another? To what extent do people identify with a party without being a member? And how do we evaluate voter intentions?
Rational choice theorists see voters as consumers of political goods. Voters buy a leader, policies, or the party. Other analysts look at what voters believe. People may be influenced by their social or religious background or their identification with a region.
Party platforms can be tailored to match voter beliefs, and to build links with age cohorts, women or men.
In a recent analysis of several elections, Dominance and Decline, McGill political scientist Elizabeth Gidengil and her Canadian Election Studies colleagues (Neil Nevitte, André Blais, Joanna Everitt and Patrick Fournier) show how the Liberal Party went from three consecutive majority governments to a minority situation followed by a slide to third-party status. The evidence is that the number of partisan Liberals declined precipitously, under Paul Martin's leadership and in the wake of the sponsorship scandal.
It was not so much that people were not buying what the Liberals were offering. Rather voters had quit believing in the Liberals.
In the three-majority period, people identifying themselves as Liberal supporters or as Liberal partisans made up nearly 25 per cent of the voting population. With only about 60 per cent turnouts, this 25 per cent translated into just short of the 40 per cent vote that elected Liberal majorities.
The Harper Conservatives owe their majority government to Ontario voters buying the Conservative economic package: leader, policies and brand. However, the base of the Harper Conservatives remains believers -- Conservative partisans, and people who identify themselves with the Conservatives. In the three years leading to the next federal election (with a date of October 2015 fixed by legislation), observers will be watching closely to see how partisan Conservative support holds up.
The Harper Conservatives run a permanent election campaign in which policy is determined by how decisions play with Conservatives. A party interested principally in satisfying partisans adopts a purely ideological policy platform and shows no interest in debate, discussion or compromise. This helps explain why the Harper Conservatives show disdain for parliament niceties such as openness to ideas from other parties, extended committee hearings, and debating one issue at a time.
If the economy worsens noticeably, or if people start to pay attention to its heavy-handed approach to democracy, the Harper Conservative fortunes could well turn down. In the middle of his second mandate, Brian Mulroney and his Conservatives lost virtually all public support. Not even Mulroney's resignation could turn things around. It is equally possible that Harper could win a second majority if he continues to nourish his party base, and has something attractive to offer voters at election time.
The authors of Dominance and Decline see New Democratic fortunes tied to their ability to win the competition for the left-of-centre vote. According to their studies, it is the voter split -- not the size of the centre-left vote -- that is the problem.
Under Tom Mulcair the NDP could benefit by simply not being the Harper Conservatives. It is an abiding truth of first-past-the-post electoral systems that voters looking for a change in government vote for the party with the best chance of winning. Known as Duverger's law (after French political scientist Maurice Duverger), the precept has generally worked against third parties, except where the vote can be concentrated geographically. Now with the Liberals and the NDP having traded places, with the Liberals as the third party, the law could well favour New Democrats come the next election.
While the New Democrats are currently polling strongly in Quebec under Tom Mulcair, according to the 2011 Canadian Election Study results (Patrick Fournier lead investigator), there was little partisan support for the NDP in the province during the last election.
Building and holding partisan support is the key to becoming the dominant party in Canada. In fact, with public spending for political party activity being phased out, the NDP needs to build a base of partisan or party supporters ready to donate to party coffers if it wants to maintain its current level of organizational strength.
A very generous political tax credit should provide the incentive needed for NDP members to donate. Either the Liberals or the Greens could take advantage of the same tax benefit mechanism. But to date only the Reform/Alliance/Conservatives have been able to make the political tax credit work to bring in big dollars. Significant funding from Conservative supporters represents a distinct advantage over the other parties that Harper intends to exploit to the maximum.
Are people getting mad enough to want to vote the Harper Conservatives out of office? The best way to answer is to watch for signs core support for the party is slipping away. A party losing believers is going to have trouble at election time.
Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.