Saturday, February 03, 2007

Stopping Harper's winning coalition

I don't normally like to write about polls as I think they're generally useless and a waste of time, but the Vancouver Sun has a piece today on a new poll that does contain some interesting analysis and starting points for debate on the tasks facing both Liberals and Conservatives in the run-up to the next election.

The poll was done online by The Innovative Research Group and their spokesperson is a long-time Conservative back room boy, so I wouldn't put too much faith in the numbers and I'd take his analysis with a grain of salt. Still, his thesis is to layout how Harper can build a winning coalition and he lays out the factors well enough.

According to Lyle, Harper has a base of about 3 in 10 Canadians or 28 per cent of the population. They're:

...a little better off financially than most citizens, care relatively less about the environment, hate the gun registry and are typically uncomfortable with gay marriage, take a tougher approach to crime, and mostly don't view Canada's social safety net as a "sacred trust."

They're dubbed "Harper's Canadians" and they're not enough to get him his majority.To do that he needs to get a significant chunk of the swing voters, the 17 per cent of Canadians that said they'd consider voting Conservative. That 45 per cent is the limit of the Conservative vote, the other 55 per cent, according to the survey, would never vote Conservative. So Harper ignores them, he needs to woo that 17 per cent. And that's what this past year has been all about, that 17 per cent of Canadians.
...Harper can win a significant chunk of those potential swing voters, securing another election win and possibly a majority government, by seeking to avoid public attention on issues where the Tories aren't seen favourably by the swing group -- such as health care, gay marriage and the environment...

The issues that unite the swing group with core Tories, and separate them from the anti-Tory group, are crime, the economy, Canada's relationship with the U.S., and ethics -- all issues where Harper gets strong ratings. Lyle said two-thirds of the swing group believe the government could easily cut taxes without major service cutbacks "if they really wanted to," while just under half say "it's hard to get by" when faced with monthly bills.

That's why early in the Harper government we saw the "tough on crime" bills, the "Accountability" Act and other issues, and are hearing more on crime recently with this hair brained idea. And expect a budget next month with oodles of tax breaks targeted at that 17 per cent.

Our job

So, how do the Liberals stop Harper from building his winning coalition? On paper, at least, it's realitevly simple, though in practice rather less so: we need to control the message.

We need to move up on the public agenda those issues that turn off that group of swing voters from Harper, such as health care and the environment. You can see Harper has already been trying to eliminate these issues: he had the vote on gay marriage, he's been pretending action on wait times, and he's trying to reclaim the environmental issue, or at least take it away from us. If he can neutralize these issues as mission accomplished then they don't become liabilities for him with those swing voters and he can move on to the issues that bind those swing voters to his base. We can't let him do that.

And then there's those issues that woo the swing voters into the Harper camp: crime, the economy, Canada/US relations and ethics. Just like Harper is trying to take the environment from us, we need to attack him on some of these issues, and dilute his advantage. And I think there is much fertile ground here.

Take ethics, the difference between Harper's rhetoric on ethics and his action has been astounding, from floor crossing and unelected ministers to staffers becoming lobbyists to a patronage orgy and the bypassing of screening practices, the list is endless and we need to show Canadians Harper is no ethical Snow White. Yes, they'll come back with the Liberals bad defence. Doesn't matter. Look at how they're attacking us on the environment. Like them on the environment, here we just need to neutralize the issue so Harper doesn't have it anymore.

Then there's the crime issue. We need to help Canadians to look past the rhetoric and see that all these "tough on crime" bills from the Conservatives may sound good, but they've been tried in the U.S. and they just don't work. We need to get the facts out there to show this is just bluster that won't help anything. We need to show that crime rates have actually been steadily declining while still acknowledging many people are still concerned and come forward with real, concrete proposals of our own.

The economy should be our issue, and we need to reclaim it. After all, it was a Liberal government that finally balanced the budget, returned surplus after surplus, and presided over an era of strong economic and employment growth. We need to meet them on the tax cut proposal front, explaining why the Conservative approach with cutting the GST is shortsighted, trumpet our own record of effective tax relief, and come forward with new proposals. And a more mature approach then the LPC has had in the past to Canada/US relations would be nice too.


I'm going to take issue with Lyle for this statement here:
"He's coming in with a very passionate, positive base. When he started the last campaign he was struggling to mobilize his base. Now they're not just sort of complacent, they're happy, they're enthusiastic."

I wouldn't take that base for granted. I think Lyle is spinning at least a bit here. Harper's base might not be upset but enthusiastic, happy? I'm not so sure. Take the anti-gay marriage portion of his base, they saw through his sham vote around reopening SSM and they're not impressed. Will they swallow it or will they stay home? The Quebecois nation motion had to be a shock to some of that Western base, and dido the all-out wooing of Quebec. Then there's the Conservative musing about ending tax breaks for the oil sands. And how about those seniors that lost much of their retirement savings on Harper's income trusts flip-flop?

The question is, as Harper tries to move to the centre to appeal to those swing voters, at what point does some of his base start to feel abandoned and neglected? Maybe he can pull it off, but I think he may be overreaching just a little bit. The question is, what can we as Liberals do to push a little wedge in there between Harper and some of that base?

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Olaf said...


The question is, what can we as Liberals do to push a little wedge in there between Harper and some of that base?

You wouldn't dare... would you?

Good post though, and it has sparked one of my own.

Anonymous said...

I know it may be silly, but I did a response on John Lennard's site about my girlfriends grandaughter - how about Harper's bullying, nastiness and how it could influence children?

JimBobby said...

Whooee! JeffFeller, I hope you won't blush when I tell you I reckon yer 'bout the sharpest fish hook in the boogin' Grits tackle box. Yer seein' it like it is an' yer plan of attack sounds good, sez I.

Yer ideas is good but I ain't so sure Canajuns'll buy 'em. I reckon yer fergittin' Canadee ain't jest Dionysians an' HarpoonTossers. While the Grits an' Tories is throwin' mud t' beat the band, the DippyWips an' the Greens an' the rotten separatist BlocHeads is standin' on the sidelines countin' votes.

Canajuns is demandin' action on Mother Earth issues. The ConMen an' GrittyFellers is doin' a good job o' teachin' Canajuns that neither one of 'em gives a ratsass 'bout green stuff.

I figger the Libs'll go negative with attack ads. Oh, they'll wait til there's an electionvote happenin' but they'll see the Cons ads workin' an' they'll go on the attack. Voters'll get disgusted. Sum voters respond t' swiftboaters by stayin' home on election day.

If yer mebbe gettin' tired o' tryin' t' defend 13 years o' do-nuthin' ditherin', drop over t' an' have a look at the 2006 Platform. You might wanna get inta a party that's on its way up instead o' headin' down.


Koby said...

I take a more wholistic issue based approach; there is more to it than simply appealing to the likes and dislikes of swing voters.

To wit: "Politics is about who is able to define whom. The Liberals need to define the Conservatives. The Liberals understand this of course.

What they do not seem to understand is that a winning issue is not always a vote getter. SSM was great example. At the polls it was looser. Canadians were spilt on the issue, but the older one is the more likely one is to be opposed and to vote. The Liberals never understood why SSM was a winning issue. They figured it must have something to do with the popularity of the Charter and as their cherry pick line polled extremely well they went with that. They made themselves out to be the Charter’s champion and this led them to propose sealing off the notwithstanding clause. There are echoes of such thinking in some of the party’s public pronouncements still. However, SSM was not a winning issue because the Liberals were able to convince Canadians that they were the Charter’s honor guard.

It was a winning issue because it left the Conservatives defending a morally, legally, and intellectually untenable position. By proposing to seal away the notwithstanding clause, Martin and company simply diverted attention away from the one issue, and I do mean one, that worked for them last election. The debate switched from can anything positive be said about the Conservative SSM position to do really want to seal away the notwithstanding clause for good?

With SSM finally off the table, the Liberals need to find a new issue. They again need to push the Conservatives into defending the undefendable. Reality has to have a well known Liberal bias. There are several possibilities."

On another note, I very must doubt that Conservative voters are slightly better off. Outside of Alberta, the well to do voted Liberals in.

Anonymous said...

Well, the Globe and Mail reports that the Federal government plans to slash 300 prison guard jobs - the party that wants to put more kids in jail.

What about their fight on crime?

bigcitylib said...

I actually disagree with this, because the climate change as a political issue is driven by climate science. If SSM can suck as much oxygen out of the room as it did when it effects a small minority of a minority over something as ephemeral as Rights, I think you will see this effect multiplied a hundred times over climate change because IT IS NOT GOING AWAY. I think rather that it will begin to crowd every other issue out.

No society argues for long with its scientific elite over matters of science. They are the very people that you pay to think about reality in a non-political fashion.

Furthermore, it would be politically stupid to change the channel now on this issue until at least after the budget. You're not going to hear much about anything else until after then (and not even after then, if you believe the science. You think scientists will stopping announcing results to help out anyone's election campaign?)

Anonymous said...

I noticed that Harper is drinking a Starbucks coffee...

Anonymous said...

There is another issue everyone seems to be missing, and that is, after 13 consecutive years, the Liberals look tired. Thats just my opinion. Trying to win votes and polls on the Environment and Koyoto was and still is a mistake, and one that 10 years ago would not have been made. Mr Dion looks tired and really looks like he's annoyed at dumb questions, and he probably should be, he's sat in Cabinet and probably has worked 12 to 16 hour days for the last 13 years, and thats my point. Question Period mistakes, Mark Holland on Adler, Mr Dion's bad fat joke etc etc. Sorry guys, but, the Cons look like the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Libs look like Philadelphia Flyers. Now dont get all bent out of shape, what I'm saying is, that after 13 years of running this country, dumb interviews, dumb would get tiring no?? I just dont see the jump and sparkle I normally see from Liberals, maybe you can get it back by election time, but, remember, the guy your trying to beat has watched and learned from you, wedge issues, keep them fighting with themselves, floor crosser's etc etc. Just a thought from the sidelines.

Anonymous said...

billg is making an interesting point. So did Lyle.

I think another aspect of this is the split potential from the right and the left.

If the Green's increase their vote 5% it isn't coming from the CPC, but will be either new or from NDP/LPC.

3 parties are carving up half the votes and one party can try to woo the other half.

It is an easier job for CPC than it is for LPC.

Plus, people now know Harper and it has made a positive difference in his persoanl acceptability. Dion still requires more looks by everybody.

LPC really does need to form the next government. If it does not (i.e. CPC minority), then I think Harper will have learned some really valuable stuff from the last year and won't make those same mistakes. LPC might be in the wilderness for awhile.


rob said...

Good post. I wonder if the pollster isn't being a bit optimistic about how large the Conservative base is though, considering they've polled lower than what their base is supposed to be as recently as December of 2005.

When I think "base" I think of the percentage of people who are basically going to vote for you no matter what, demonstrated over a period of time, not just any given moment. The Conservatives polled at 23% as recently as 2004.

Based on polls over the last three years, the Conservative base is likely around 23%. The Liberal base is likely around 27%. The NDP base is likely around 10%. BQ base is probably around 8%, and the Green base is probably around 2%. Basically, about 30% of Canadians are up for grabs.

Of course, that doesn't mean that the Conservatives could woo 30% of Canadians outside of their base, because some of them will be the left of centre types that the Liberals, NDP, Bloc, and Greens fight over. They probably have access to 2/3 of the swing voters, wh will decide primarily between them and the Liberals. The Liberals, on the other hand, have access to nearly all of the swing voters.

ottlib said...

Several flaws in the pollster's argument.

First, the Green Party will be lucky to gain more than 5% of the vote. Regardless of Canadians' concerns about the environment they are not going to vote enmass for a virtually unknown party.

Second, if I read the story properly they do not consider the effect of the Bloc. A significant number of those swing voters are from Quebec. In that Province the split favours the Liberals as the Conservatives do not have much of a base there and what votes the Conservatives do receive they steal from the Bloc. The result could be some favourable splits for a resurgent Liberal Party or just outright losses for the Conservatives if Quebecers' were only flirting with the Conservatives.

Third, the Liberal Party is the only party that can displace the Conservatives and progressives know it. If the mood of progressives is they want to get rid of the Conservatives they will focus their votes around the Liberals.

Fourth, they assume that Canadians who are "open to voting for the Conservatives" all care about Conservative issues. If that were the case they would not be counted amongst the swing voters, they would be counted amongst the Conservative base.

The reason why they are swing voters is they are all concerned about different issues at different times and what they are concerned about changes often. Trying to keep up with their shifting priorities is virtually impossible.

Fifth, 55% of those asked said no way to voting Conservative. Ouch. With only 45% of the electorate to work with, the Conservatives are starting with a significant disadvantage from the beginning.

Finally, they do not take into account the concentration of voter support. How many of the 28% of committed Conservatives quoted in the story are in Alberta compared to the rest of the country. I would submit that it is significant and that would mean the Conservative base is not a broad as the raw number might indicate.

Jeff said...

You wouldn't dare... would you?

Who, me? :)

how about Harper's bullying, nastiness and how it could influence children

I think you're probably right, but in fairness I wouldn't say Harper is doing something that hasn't been done my all politicians for years. It's more a commentary on the state of our political debate, and how that impacts our children would certainly be a topic worth considering.


I reckon yer fergittin' Canadee ain't jest Dionysians an' HarpoonTossers.

You're right, as are the others that have made that point. The lack of mention of the other parties was a flaw in this fellow's analysis, to a point. Get to that in a sec, on the neg front I'll just point out while the Greens probably won't, the NDP has gone plenty negative in the past and there's no reason why they won't again.


I take a more wholistic issue based approach; there is more to it than simply appealing to the likes and dislikes of swing voters.

I agree, this is only a starting point. It's not enough to deny support to the Conservatives, that's what I was talking about here. But we need to build our own support, that's a whole other story.

BigCityLib, while I can understand the sentiment of those advocating at least a temporary channel change away from the environment I'm hesitant too. One, it's been so core to what Dion has been talking about for the past year that to stop talking about it suddenly would look silly, and make people question whether we actually cared about the issue or not in the first place. But I do agree that we need to broaden our message more than we have; don't stop talking about the environment but talk about other issues too.

I noticed that Harper is drinking a Starbucks coffee...

Yes, I wonder how his Tim Horton's drinking supporters feel about that...

I wonder if the pollster isn't being a bit optimistic about how large the Conservative base is though, considering they've polled lower than what their base is supposed to be

I agree, as I said this guy is a Conservative backroomer so take the exact numbers with a grain of salt. In fairness though perhaps base is the wrong word, and they can shift, I think in this case that 28 per cent is those that in the poll said they're voting Con for sure, committed voters. Anyway, the numbers aren't super important, I thought the concepts he laid out were interesting and a starting point for further debate.


I agree, there are many flaws in Lyle's thesis. In a limited context though, the battle between the Libs and the Cons, it's interesting. Naturally, similar exercises would be appropriate for looking at the prospects of the other parties and the challenges facing them.

Koby said...

A BCer in Toronto: "We need to build our own support, that's a whole other story."

True enough, but that is not my point. What bothered me was this: the approach the pollster takes is entirely mechanical. It amounts to nothing more than focus the debate on issues that poll well with swing voters and stay clear of issues that do not poll well. The whole SSM debate revealed some of the short comings of such an approach. Yes, Canadians were spilt on the issue of SSM, but likely voters were not. A strong majority of likely voters were opposed to the idea and that includes the majority of elusive swing voters. That being said, pretty much all parties recognize that the issue was a winning one for the Liberals and a losing one for Conservatives. No one to may knowledge has successfully explained why and so I had a go. I argued that with regard to hotly debated subjects such as SSM, marijuana legalization a party that shows no commitment to reasoned debate will in time be pillared by voters regardless of whether the voters agree with the party’s position or not. Where that relates back to SSM is that the Conservative were forced into “defending a morally, legally and intellectually untenable position” and this hurt them badly. This not the only time that “truth” as it were triumphed over “opinion”. The Dover evolutionary debate in the States is another example. Be rest assured, the residents of Dover are no more accepting of evolutionary theory than the residents of other small US towns. Yet, the Dover creationists were handily defeated when they ran for reelection. Respect for public debate matters and the Dover creationists showed none.

Scotian said...

I think Koby raises a very important point. It is not just the issues themselves that matter but how willing are the parties to allow debate against them on their positions and how they respond to that disagreement. As Koby noted using the Dover example showing respect for debate and the right of others to disagree with your position without being evil incarnate can carry more weight than one's one position agreeing with those you sided against because of their demonstrated intolerance for that respectful disagreement/debate.

I would also add that if this was true in the States given their more aggressive political cultural dynamics then in this country, where civility and manners have always held great weight/premium it is probable that it carries even more weight here. Indeed, many times all around the blogosphere I have gone after the Harper CPC for the tactical tools they use to prevent reasoned debate and that this is profoundly anti-Canadian in nature and that it is one of the things that has kept Harper from gaining swing voter support along with some of his issues.

I have always maintained that part of the greatest danger in the GOP tools and tactics Harper has imported, especially where media and message control is concerned is that it prevents respect for differing opinions and limits the ability of those different POVs to be not just heard but even able to try and be heard. This is a nation built on civility and respect for diversity, even from the outset when we accommodated Quebec's French heritage within our framework at the founding. We have as our motto peace, order and good government, and that is built on mutual respect, tolerance and compromise, and none of these values appear to hold much weight in the Harper CPC. That is a weakness for the CPC as well which should be exploited by its opponents as well as on the issues as BCer discusses in this post.

Monkey Loves to Fight said...

I think the 28% is probably the number that will vote Conservative for sure in the next election, but not necessarily their base. As for 45%, that is the number that could theoretically vote Conservative but if you looked at each of those 17% closely, you would probably find the issues that appeal to some completely turn off the others, so realistically I don't think the Tories could get more than 10% at any one given time since the issues that attract one swing voter may be very different from another. So in reality, there is no chance of the Tories getting this amount. I suspect close to 50% would theoretically consider voting Liberal and one poll said 1/3 of Canadians would consider voting Green, but does that mean that either of those scenarios will happen, off course not!

As for turning off their base, I think a lot of the far right may feel Harper hasn't gone far enough but since they hate the Liberals so much they will turn up just to keep them out. The only risk Harper would face is if a more right wing party appeared or if it was clear which party was going to form government. If the Liberals are well ahead in the polls, then many of his base will stay home, but if they are tied with the Tories, then they will come out.

Koby is also right about the rich mainly voting Liberal, although I should note the Tories also do better amongst the rich than other groups. In fact both the Liberals and Tories are strongest amongst the rich since the NDP and BQ are pretty much non-existent amongst the rich so both parties get above 40%, whereas they don't amongst other income groups.