My story for print Maclean’s on Conservative fortunes in provincial politics is now on the web. As is often the case, I had help with the story from lots of people who didn’t make it into the finished version, and gathered information and had thoughts that didn’t quite fit.
1) A lot could still happen to derail or deplete the in-progress “blue surge”, but the mere possibility does create problems for the folk wisdom that the party in power in Ottawa tends to lose in the provinces. Trudeau’s dynamic personality had completely wiped out the Liberal brand in provincial politics by 1980; the Mulroney years left the Conservatives barely hanging on in the Prairies; Chretien’s brought them back, in ’04 and ’05, to the peak they’re now trying to re-climb. Wouldn’t we expect the Harper government to create costs for Conservatives like David Alward?
The thing is, if you ask a political scientist about this folk wisdom they’ll make an unsweetened-lemonade face. Despite the apparent trends of the last 30 or 40 years, there’s still a sizable controversy about how independent the federal and provincial political scenes are.
A couple of years ago, UBC’s Fred Cutler made a close study of Ontario’s 2003 election and found that the decisions of Ontario voters were dominated by “arena-specific factors”. Cutler’s analysis confirmed what I suppose we all imagine to be true of ourselves: we mostly aren’t blind automatons who adhere to national brands. Knowing a voter’s national-level identification gave you surprisingly little additional information about how he would vote in Ontario in ’03, even though there was a perfect one-to-one mapping between federal and provincial ridings and the same parties were contending in both arenas. Voters chose their party pretty strictly on within-Ontario criteria, especially economically. Their degree of satisfaction with the federal government didn’t affect their Ontario decision.
Cutler has been building and juggling a dataset that contains every provincial and federal election since Confederation, and he has ransacked it for several different types of effect of federal politics on provincial ones. He says you can find evidence for common forces in the background—policy fashions, economic factors—that predispose voters to choose the same party on both levels. At the same time there is also evidence the other way, for the folk wisdom that voters act to “check” the party in power at the top—particularly after three or four years in office. “But electorates,” Cutler told me, “neither check nor balance the federal government when it is a minority. They don’t need to.”
2) There’s a passing mention in my story of new Toronto mayor Rob Ford, Canada’s one-man tea party. I was talking to people a full week before the election, and I had to be careful about presuming a particular result. But the writing was on the wall. Ford’s name came up a lot; he could easily have been the whole story.
Ford terrifies all the right people. How he will perform as mayor, God knows. But his triumph has relevance for provincial and federal politics. Graham Murray, editor of the Inside Queen’s Park newsletter, was the first to talk to me about how a Ford win would affect the prestige of “strategic voting”. We agreed that it is hard to say exactly how.
Some people think Ford’s win is so overwhelming that a concerted push behind one candidate of the left could never have mattered. I wonder what Linda Duncan thinks about that? Ford didn’t win half the vote, and the next two candidates’ combined votes would have beaten him—even though Rocco Rossi dropped out (or was forced out by defecting advisors) so late that his advance voters weren’t available to help anybody. It seems to me, from a very distant vantage point, that Ford couldn’t have arranged the campaign any better to suit himself. In the debates he almost seemed to take on the heroic aspect of a Roman gladiator fending off concerted attacks from a half-dozen smaller animals—ocelots? Weasels?
For many Torontonians, particularly the ones most inclined to think of themselves as representing the spirit of the city, the idea of Ford bedecked in the velvet-lined chain of office may be an ongoing torture. That, in turn, could encourage strategic voting and even overt trade-offs on the polite left—which has always found such affairs distasteful, because its adherents see politics as a means of self-expression and cosmic justice rather than a method of selecting managers and keeping them appropriately off-balance. The idea of voting for the least horrible bastard who can actually win isn’t very romantic. But maybe it has a certain appeal today that it didn’t before?