How tanking turnout makes for ugly elections

Wedge issues and fear politics win when voters stay home, pollsters say
By Tom Barrett

Declining turnout actually affects how elections are fought. Photo: Shutterstock.
Declining turnout actually affects how elections are fought. Photo: Shutterstock.

Chances are the next government of B.C. will be chosen by approximately half of all eligible voters. That means that even in a landslide the winning party will probably have the support of no more than a quarter of all the province’s citizens.

Like other Canadians, British Columbians are becoming less and less inclined to vote. In the 2009 provincial election, only 51 per cent of all estimated eligible voters bothered to turn out.

A lot has been written about falling turnout rates and the precise causes of the decline are still largely a mystery. Some blame a dwindling sense of civic duty in young people. Some blame negative, fear-based campaigns.

But there’s another side to it. Declining turnout also affects how elections are fought. Ironically, the more that voters stay home because of politicians’ bad behaviour, the more likely politicians may be to behave badly.

“Turnout is increasingly becoming more important than persuasion in elections,” pollster Greg Lyle, managing director of Innovative Research Group,  said in an interview.

Lyle said that in the old days, when turnout was in the 70 per cent range or higher, campaigns concentrated on wooing ambivalent voters, or what Lyle referred to as “cross-pressured” voters.

“They’re concerned about balanced budgets, but they’re concerned about waiting lists at hospitals and they want to hear a balanced argument,” he said. “They don’t want someone to just focus on one [issue] or the other.”

But as the turnout gets lower and lower, the people who show up to vote tend to be the ones who aren’t cross-pressured — “people that have very consistent points of view, very ideological positions,” said Lyle, who was Gordon Campbell’s campaign director in the 1996 B.C. election. That’s led parties to build their campaigns around strong differences “that will essentially scare their voters into getting up and going to vote,” said Lyle. Continue reading

Amazing Comebacks Christy Clark Hopes to Emulate

BC’s Premier Clark: Big ground to make up, but stranger things have happened.

Four election shockers that keep BC’s New Dems up at night
By Tom Barrett

With less than three months to go until Election Day, Premier Christy Clark’s Liberals are betting on a major come-from-behind surge to wipe out the New Democratic Party’s lead in the polls.

It’s a tall order, but it wouldn’t be the first time voters have shifted that much, that fast.
“Things can change very quickly,” said Angus Reid pollster Mario Canseco. Even when an opposition party enters an election campaign with a healthy lead, voters can abandon it if they decide the party isn’t ready to govern.

For the past several years, the NDP has held a robust lead over the BC Liberals in the polls. Although the lead has dropped from highs of 20 points or more, the most recent polls still show the NDP up by 10 to 15 percentage points.

But headlines like Hudak Tories Roaring Toward a Majority: Poll and Danielle Smith’s Wildrose on Track for Majority suggest just how volatile voters can be. And headlines like ‘We Were Wrong’: Alberta Election Pollsters Red-faced as Tories Crush Wildrose serve as a reminder that polls are a snapshot in time, not a forecast.

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Dix’s Big Gamble: No Dirt

As Libs sling mud, NDP leader refuses to go negative. Will out-of-the-box strategy box him in?
By Tom Barrett

Mr. Nice Guy: Adrian Dix
Mr. Nice Guy: Adrian Dix

The New Democratic Party intends to win the May 14 election by campaigning against negative campaigning. NDP leader Adrian Dix has said the party won’t fight fire with fire — or, in this case, mud with mud — no matter how nasty the other side gets.

Like pornography, negative campaigning is hard to define, but we know it when we see it. And most of us say we hate it.

Still, political strategists tend to believe it works. Just look at what the Stephen Harper Conservatives did to Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. Will negative ads hurt Dix in the same way? And if they do, is being positive an effective counter-strategy?

As election day approaches, the NDP’s lead on Christy Clark’s Liberals is likely to narrow. If that happens, “the NDP may have to resort to some harder-hitting commentary on the Liberals generally and Christy Clark in particular,” said political scientist Hamish Telford. “And that will raise all sorts of questions: ‘Well, Mr. Dix, you said you were going to have a positive campaign, now you’re doing this that and the other’…

“So it does box him in a bit and that may cause him a problem for sure.”

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