Minority Report

minority-reportLast year at this time a seemingly insignificant piece of data surprised me; exactly fifty percent of Canadians wanted a majority government in Ottawa, and the other fifty percent wanted a minority.

I’d never seen that ratio before, only ever recalling a preferential leaning toward a majority status. And seems to me prior minority governments resulted not because minority was what voters wanted, but because competing majority forces couldn’t squeak one out.

For a couple of years running, public sentiment has been different and last year I began to wonder how, in what way, and why. Focus group junkies are obsessed with these types of questions.

By definition, a person’s desire for a minority government means they want someone else to have seats too. To that point in time last year, I’d never really thought about political opinion in that way. I’d only ever considered that a person either voted for choice A, B, or C, and more recently, possibly D. The trick was always to know for whom, and how opinion could be shifted.

For the most part, pollsters and political parties have paid little if any attention to the number of seats a voter for party A wants party B to have and vice versa. Why would they? That’s not how the voting system works, right? Perhaps. But that is how the brain works, subconsciously at least, and that’s what gave me inspiration to ask the traditional vote question differently.

Last spring Core Strategies did not simply ask Canadians who they would vote for. Instead, and in view of Canadians significant desire for a minority government, we set out to understand how Canadians wanted a minority to look. Again, I was less interested in a minority look following a failed majority attempt, but was intently interested in the number of seats voters (even those desiring a majority) wanted other parties to have. This, in my view was a vastly different and more meaningful analysis, and not at all the same thing as asking voters for their second, third, and fourth choice.

Not to belabour the point with superfluous example, but, if at one point in time a person who intends voting Conservative also wants Liberals to have 60 seats a few months later reports they still intend voting Conservative but now want Liberals to have 80 seats, that tells us something very significant about the political landscape as it shifts beneath us. This methodology can also serve as a precursor of things to come. After all, there comes a time when the number of seats a person wants the other party to get increases so much, that one begins to question ones own vote.

I maintain, that he or she who best understands and pays attention to this particular type of ebb and flow to the political landscape, is in a better position to either explain current support levels, prognosticate voting intention, or manipulate voting intention depending on which business one is in.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then I can’t say enough that Harris/Decima, arguably one of the best full service research operations in Canada, last month picked up the methodology. Earlier this week Harris/Decima reported Canadians Prefer Polyglot Parliament using essentially the same question Core Strategies investigated last spring, namely: “Imagine that there are 100 seats in the House of Commons.  How many would you like to see each of the following parties win in the next federal election?  Liberal, Conservative, Bloc, NDP, Green.”

Similar to Core Strategies results in May and June 2007, the Harris/Decima results from December 2007 furthers the inference that many Canadians still favour a minority, one based on some sort of proportional representation or “Polyglot Parliament” as referred to by Harris-D.

While the wording of the question is not identical, it is certainly close enough to permit a look at the seat distribution data as a time series as depicted below.     

    All Voters       CON     LIB     NDP     GREEN   BQ  
  Dec June May   Dec June May Dec June May Dec June May Dec June May Dec June May
CON 96 91 97   174 151 171 61 68 69 56 54 53 66 61 67 71 62 59
LIB 111 88 81   73 70 58 177 136 125 90 67 66 107 71 64 61 65 61
NDP 48 56 49   31 39 32 37 50 45 115 110 97 42 50 51 36 45 39
GREEN 25 38 42   12 26 24 19 32 39 21 46 51 72 83 92 20 34 37
BLOC 28 34 39   18 24 23 14 23 30 26 32 41 20 43 35 121 102 114

Unfortunately there aren’t data between June and December. However, my hunch is Conservative fortunes under this analysis were probably at an all-time-high in September-October, prior to Mulroney and Bali. Nevertheless the chart above suggests that, by-and-large, support at the end of the year came back to mirror data from the spring with improved figures for the Liberals, not dissimilar to pattern uncovered by the traditional vote question.

Where this methodology allows the analysis to be taken a step further, is in understanding from whom support is being taken and where it’s ending up. More important, the data provides an analysis of the intensity of voting intention.

For the most part Conservative voters have remained the most consistent in the support they have for other parties and themselves; in May at 171 seats, down to 151 in June, but rebounded to 174 by December. Conservative support for the other parties varied insignificantly save for the Green party where support fell to 12 seats.

The biggest gainer appears to be the Liberal support base. Liberals themselves want their party to have 177 seats, up from 136 and 125 in June and May. However, as Harris/Decima astutely points out “…because strategic voting has been an important factor in recent elections, it is useful to note how supporters of the smaller parties feel about the outcomes they would like to see for the larger parties.” I could not agree more.

As I have previously strongly argued in this space, within the context of minority sentiment the manner in which the vote splits on the Left is key not just to the eventual minority seat count, but to whether or not a minority actually occurs, or results in a “default majority.” Pertinent to this point is how NDP and Green party support for the Liberals has risen between June and December. From 67 to 90 seats for the former, and from 71 to a whopping 107 seats for the latter.

In fairness, NDP support for the NDP and Bloc support for the Bloc also intensified between June and December, 110 to 115 seats, and 102 to 121 respectively. Only the Green party support softened among its own supporters, 83 to 72 seats.

Those wanting to be critical of this methodology will be quick to point out that it deals in abstracts, talks about party support in terms of unrealizable seats counts, and assumes some form of proportional representation. All fair observations, but missing the larger picture. Just as stock indices are not indicators of individual stock values, they serve well in terms of market analysis, and that’s how this methodology should be viewed and worked with, as an analytical tool.

The Economy vs. Environment debacle hinted to in my last post has barely begun to grab hold, but early indicators are the analysis is correct and is only going to intensify. As short term economic concerns possibly begin to overshadow longer term environmental issues, will faith continue to flow toward Liberal support, or will traditional thinking set in that Conservatives are more fiscally responsible and trustworthy?  

That last question isn’t prognostication. We badly need mid-January and early February data to learn in which way the underlying sentiment is heading.

My hope? That Harris/Decima keeps asking the new question week-after-week, month-after-month.

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