Warm feelings, strategic voting

How much strategic voting will go on come Oct. 14?

It’s an increasingly pressing question. Polls tells us a lot of traditionally Liberal voters are now leaning toward the NDP. In the remaining 17 days of the campaign, Stéphane Dion must persuade them either them to change their minds—a tall order once impressions have taken hold—or to stifle their favourable view of the NDP, and vote Liberal anyway.

In other words: vote strategically in order to block the Conservatives from winning a majority.

(Warning: much ivory-tower-eggheadishness ahead, which is almost as bad as rich-gala-going-artsy-elitism. Everyday common-sense folk, avert your eyes.)

I looked up the 2007 paper “Strategic Voting in Canada: A Cross Time Analysis,” by the political science professors Jennifer L. Merolla, of Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, and Laura B. Stephenson, of University of Western Ontario, from the journal Electoral Studies.

Merollo and Stephenson look at how many voters voting cast a ballot for someone other than the candidate of the party and leader to whom they feel most attracted. They relied on data from the Canadian Elections Study surveys, which employed what’s called a “feeling thermometer,” asking respondents how warmly they felt toward the various parties and leaders.

The proportion of Canadians who intended to not to vote for the party and leader they felt most warmly about was pegged at 13.3 per cent in 1988, 10.7 per cent in 1993, 15.5 per cent in 1997, and 13.3 per cent in 2000.

That’s a pretty big chunk of the electorate voting head rather than heart. Obviously, the Liberals, who aren’t generating a lot of warm feelings just now, will want to push that number up in the stretch run of this campaign.

To do so they’ll need to shore up the rapidly eroding perception that this is mainly a Tory-Liberal contest.

Here’s why. Strategic voting is far more prevalent among those who believe their first preference has a less chance of winning than their second preference. It’s not surprising: if your instinct is to like the NDP best, Liberals second, and Tories third, you’re more likely to vote Liberal if you don’t think the NDP stands much chance of winning.

So, based on the voters’ own predictions (again from the survey) of what percentage of the vote they thought the various parties would get, how many planned—if they didn’t think their first choice was really in the race—to vote for their second choice?

In these cases, Merollo and Stephenson report the percentage of those who didn’t intend to vote for the party they liked best was much higher: 34.3 per cent in 1988, 24.5 per cent in 1993, 26.2 per cent in 1997, and 34.8 per cent in 2000.

When the real race is between your second and third preferences, then you’re likely to drop your first preference and go with second best. But if your first and second choices look to be about equally likely to knock off your third choice, why not just stick with your first choice? Get it?

It basically means that among left-of-centre voters, the key is for the NDP is to limit strategic voting by emphasizing the rather novel—but, according to polls, increasingly plausible—notion that Layton stands as good a chance as Dion of preventing Tories from winning.

The way I read these numbers: a sizable minority of voters (maybe somewhere in the low teens) are willing to pass over the party and leader they feel most warmly about, and an even more sizeable minority (maybe a whopping third of voters) are willing to do so if the strategic case for doing so is compelling.

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