Some years ago, in those politically heady days when Barack Obama seemed poised to secure the Democratic presidential nomination, the New Yorker ran a cartoon depicting a credulous-looking woman asking of a door-to-door pollster: “Is ‘oblivious’ the same as ‘undecided?’ ” As it turns out, “oblivious” may actually mean agreeing with the Liberal party’s policy positions, at least if we take the findings of the CBC’s Vote Compass survey seriously. That tool, which surpassed a million completions after little more than a week on the CBC website, tells respondents which of the major political parties they’re most closely aligned to based on their answers to 30 policy-focused questions. It also appears to throw politically tepid users in with the party of Laurier and Trudeau.
Last week, the survey came under fire for containing what detractors called a Liberal bias, an inherent skew that led to too many respondents getting lumped in with the Liberals. Even über-partisan Conservative campaign chair Guy Giorno said, via Twitter, that the survey told him he was a Grit.
Much of the criticism has, it must be said, been driven by the Sun Media newspaper chain, which since the last federal election has undergone a revamp overseen by former Stephen Harper spokesman Kory Teneycke, a VP with parent company Quebecor who briefly left the job last fall amid controversy surrounding its efforts to secure a broadcasting licence from the feds. Teneycke has since returned, and Sun TV is poised to launch this month as a CBC competitor. The Sun Media criticisms seem aimed more at the public broadcaster than at the political scientists with Vote Compass, an independent, non-profit group that had flirted with a number of media outlets.
Yet accusations of bias aside, Vote Compass and the ruckus surrounding it may actually reflect some uncomfortable truths about the Liberals and the way Canadians choose to cast their votes. It may demonstrate that the Liberals, in being all things to all people, capture the profoundly confused as well as the merely vacillating. The tool may also show just how little policy considerations matter to most Canadian voters.
Intended as a fun, informative complement to the election, Vote Compass presents respondents with 30 questions and statements—”Canada should adopt a carbon tax,” for example—to which they assign one of five possible responses, from “strongly agree” to “neither agree nor disagree” and so on. Respond too often with a sixth option—”don’t know”—and the tool aligns you with no party. Those who answer the queries as you’d expect a Tory to get placed with the Tories. “It diagnosed me as conservative,” says University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan, a former Harper adviser who has worked with Peter Loewen, one of Vote Compass’s designers. “If it hadn’t I’d have been alarmed.”
But Vote Compass undoubtedly puts users who like to fall within the soft middle—”neither agree nor disagree”—into the Liberal fold. That tendency has prompted derision among non-Liberals. “If you’re just a big wishy-washy teddy bear… then the Liberals probably are the party for you,” the National Post’s Kelly McParland wrote of Vote Compass. The Liberals don’t necessarily disagree. “It’s no surprise that the values that are shared by most Canadians are Liberal values,” chirped Liberal spokeswoman Kate Purchase. “We’re squarely at the centre, progressive, compassionate and equally focused on equality and fiscal responsibility.”
Nor do the political scientists behind Vote Compass quibble with the way their tool parks agnostics in the Liberal camp. “It’s a person saying, ‘I’m legitimately ambivalent,’ ” says Loewen, a University of Toronto political scientist. “Across those 30 issue statements, the Liberals are the most likely to occupy middling positions. Duh! They’re the third most successful political party in the history of democracy—it’s probably because they’re pretty good at cutting down the middle.” An axis diagram presented at the end of the survey places the Grits in the upper-left quadrant (economically left and socially liberal) but very close to the axis’s point of intersection—the middle, in other words. The Tories hover on the edge of the solar system, somewhere in the vicinity of Pluto, in the lower-right quadrant—socially conservative, economically right, about the same distance from the centre as the NDP.
Such positioning puts the Liberals in a good place to capture plenty of Vote Compass users. Why not in real life, if current polling and the last election are any guide? Those at Vote Compass hope the discrepancy between party preference and where a respondent actually stands vis-à-vis the issues will help spark debate. “There’s an element of surprise there when they say, ‘It can’t be the case that I’m closest to a party I find distasteful,’ ” Loewen says. Notes Clifton van der Linden, Vote Compass’s executive director: “That’s been another criticism—that the Conservative party is plotted too far right.” But van der Linden says the group consulted with all the parties in plotting their positions. Rarely, Vote Compass disagreed and assigned a party the position it believed it merited according to its own public statements—all assiduously footnoted on the Vote Compass site.
Despite that caution, Loewen and van der Linden found themselves thrust last week into the political spotlight amid charges of bias. Van der Linden in particular had never been on intimate terms with the raunchy world of partisan politics, the very fray he studies—an entomologist trapped in the bug fight at the end of his microscope. It was an unexpected development. “I’m learning a lot about politics that I don’t learn in the ivory tower,” he says before adding, as only a political scientist could: “I’ve learned that the world is more multi-variant than any model I can ever create.”