ELECTION'79

THE UNDECIDED: Where will they go ?

Robert Lewis May 7 1979
ELECTION'79

THE UNDECIDED: Where will they go ?

Robert Lewis May 7 1979

THE UNDECIDED: Where will they go ?

Robert Lewis

It is a time of antipathy against Pierre Trudeau and ambivalence about Joe Clark. It is a season when Ed Broadbent, a socialist in Pierre Cardin threads, mainstreets outside the Toronto Stock Exchange; when Créditiste leader Fabien Roy, political scion of Réal Caouette’s fierce federalism, hitches his star to the Parti Québécois machine. It is an election of riddles, agony and anger. With three weeks to go, one of the few predictables is that the era of the true national party is coming to a close.

Little wonder, then, that last week two national polls placed Liberals and Conservatives in a virtual tie and the undecided vote at more than 30 per cent. True, the soundings by Gallup and the CBC were only snapshots of public opinion in the early weeks of the campaign, long before vote intentions tend to jell. But seasoned political backroomers are unsettled. With the exception of the Gallup poll taken 57 days before the 1965 election—the heyday of the Pearson-Diefenbaker feud—the undecided vote has not been higher in 37 years.

“The undecided,” says veteran Liberal strategist Keith Davey, “are higher than in any election in which I’ve been involved.” Says Conservative pollster Robert Teeter, of Detroit’s Market Opinion Research: “We’re probably dealing with an election that won’t be decided by more than two or three per cent.” Adds NDP National Campaign Director Robin Sears: “All I can say is that nobody knows.”

All the more curious, then, that the fifth week of the long campaign centered on the issue of majority government. Pierre Trudeau started it all as he flew toward Winnipeg. Over a private meal of fish, steak and wine with To-

ronto Star reporter Mary Janigan and the CBC’s Mark Phillips, Trudeau was prodded into sharing his “innermost feelings” about minority government. He mused that if the Conservatives fall short of the required 142-seat majority, and his Liberals are five to 10 seats behind the Tories, he would try to govern with a minority, backed by Broadbent’s New Democrats.

The strategizing went down like filet mignon with Baby Duck. “Dumb, dumb, dumb,” whispered a Liberal official. “Typical arrogance,” snorted Broadbent in St. John’s, Newfoundland. “You can throw me out, but I won’t go,” mimicked Joe Clark in Perth, New Brunswick.

Pouncing on the blunder, the other party leaders postured. Clark said a Conservative minority would govern in the manner of a majority, ignoring both New Democrats and Créditistes. Broadbent insisted bravely that he is campaigning for a majority and once again ducked the looming reality: “Minority government is not on the ballot.” For his part, Roy asserted in Chicoutimi, Quebec, that he won’t make a deal with minority Liberals or even throw in with the Conservatives in exchange for cabinet posts for Créditistes. In a halfhearted comeback, Trudeau asserted: “We are campaigning for a majority and we hope we will get one.”

Any of the brave assertions of April, of course, could disappear in the harsh realities of May 22. For now, however, the leaders are leaving matters in the hands of the electors—a potential horde of 15 million which, variously, is befuddled, uncertain or just plain turned off. Historically, about 25 per cent of eligible voters do not go to the polls—and this time there may be more who don’t.

Typically, William Harrison, 35, an Etobicoke, Ontario, office manager, told Maclean’s: “I expect to make up my mind within a week of the voting day.” Gwen Archer, a downtown Toronto homemaker, is even undecided about how to lodge her protest: “I’m rather disillusioned with politics and may not even cast a vote. No, I’ll probably go and vote, but I might destroy my ballot.” Vancouver’s Peggy Scully, 22 and unemployed, voted Liberal in 1974 but now asserts: “It’s either Conservative or NDP. I’ve been hired and laid off and I’m getting sick of it. I just don’t think Trudeau is doing enough about it.” Regina schoolteacher Don Gartner is in a fairly common quandary on his march away from the NDP: “I don’t like Trudeau, but the only problem is, if we get Clark, it seems like going from the frying pan into the fire.”

ELECTION'79

There was more smoke than light in the two national polls. A CBC/Carleton journalism survey gave the Conservatives a two-point lead among decided voters over the third and fourth weeks of the campaign: Conservatives 40.2 per cent, Liberals 38.4, NDP 16 and Créditistes 4.6, with 31.5 undecided. The monthly Gallup reported the Liberals with a five-point lead among decided voters after 10 campaign days (pre-Fabien Roy): Liberals 43 per cent, Conservatives 38, NDP 17 and “others” two, with undecided at 32.

Anthony Westell, a veteran political analyst who supervised the Carleton study, readily admits that the possible three-point margin of error in the CBCpoll means the parties are “neck and neck.” But he says the results suggest a Tory minority because of big PC leads in southern Ontario and the lower mainland of B.C. Grits, meanwhile, cite Gallup as a sign of a Liberal victory, although the possible margin of error is four points.

All polls, warns Paul Myles of Goldfarb Consultants Ltd., the Liberal polling firm, are “only a snapshot at a point in time of what is in the marketplace. It’s still anybody’s ball game. There is indecision in the air.”

Who are the undecideds and where are they going? Teeter’s numbers place them around 15 per cent, not 30. He is

probably right, since there is a strong correlation between people who say they are undecided and people who won’t vote—“the Barbarians,” in the usage of one of the most perceptive backroomers in Ottawa. “They don’t know and they don’t care.” In the last eight elections, the Barbarians have averaged 24 per cent of eligible voters. Hence a 30-per-cent undecided rate can, by voting day, actually mean a mere six per cent—which still can tip the balance in enough close races to turn minorities into majorities.

Thus switchers and particularly new and “transient” voters—they vote in one election, but not the next—become a focus of the parties in the closing days. Often it is a chase that turns into a ghost hunt.

The lesions of recent political history are something less than reassuring. In a book published this year, four academics have, for a change, produced a useful guide to past voting patterns.* Based on a professional survey funded by the Canada Council of 2,562 voters after the 1974 election, 36 per cent of Canadians have voted for a second party at least once. In just two years between the elections of 1972 and 1974, 18 per cent switched parties.

*Political Choice in Canada, by Carleton’s Jon Pammett and Jane Jenson and Windsor university’s Harold D. Clarke and Lawrence LeDuc (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, $24.95).

It seems somehow fittingly Canadian that the switch-hitters hate more than they love, more frequently rejecting one party instead of embracing the new; and downright North American that they respond overwhelmingly to the “personality” and “style” of leaders, not issues.

In 1974, despite conventional wisdom, only one and two per cent cited controls and other economic issues as “positive” factors in a vote for Trudeau or thenTory leader Robert Stanfield respectively. But 48 per cent cited “personality” and 36 per cent “style” as Trudeau positives. For Stanfield, the corresponding figures were 33 and 12 per cent.

But the study finds that new and “transient” votes can be more important than switchers. In 1974, for example, more switchers moved away from the Liberals than came over from other parties. But the Liberals fashioned their majority by offsetting their net loss of switchers with first-time voters and “transients,” numbering roughly 750,000.

The challenge of the parties is first to turn them on—thus the inane leaders’ dashes across the land by jet and the ad campaigns on television (see page 45). “They tend,” says Westell, “not to be greatly concerned with issues. They tend to put more stock in leadership. Victory in the end may go to the leader with the very high-profile campaign.”

Superficially, heckler-basher Trudeau has the edge. But the NDP is hoping that stressing issues will boost its chances of getting 30 seats. The Tories, meanwhile, are betting that voters have, after 11 years of Trudeau, changed their perception of leadership and associate the problems of the country with Trudeau. As one insider puts it, “charisma is now equated with erratic and toughness with divisiveness.” But, as the fellow says, “while the negatives about Trudeau are every bit as deep, the jury is still out on Clark, although there is modest improvement.”

Not surprisingly, then, Trudeau spends a lot of time attacking Clark and, as he did last week in Kelowna, asserting that “I don’t see any evidence of a country that is going down the drain.” But confronted by hecklers and brutal anti-French sentiment, which seemed to deflate him, Trudeau’s B.C. swing was flat and low-key. Only at week’s end did he seem to catch fire again, confronting protesters, gunslinger style, in London, Ont., and shouting out his call for strong central government.

Clark, meanwhile, tried to mock everything that Trudeau stands for, including his gunslinger stance, as he posed, briefly, before a solitary microphone. The momentum of the campaign week seemed to be with Clark who, stung by criticism of a Saran-wrapped campaign, held a press conference and agreed to debate the other leaders—an event which, in a tight race, could have a decisive impact (see page 25).

As Maclean’s writer Ian Urquhart reports: Clark’s unrehearsed responses on

Quebec at the press conference brought him into heavy seas. In asserting that “Quebec cannot vote its way out of Canada,” Clark broke away from positions taken by some of his candidates in Quebec. In a provocative retort, Broadbent said the hard line could trigger a civil war. Another controversial Clark position-moving the Canadian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusaelm—was calculated. Clark said the major foreign policy change was advocated by three candidates running in heavily-Jewish Toronto ridings. At a press conference last Jan. 18 in Amman, Jordan, at the end of his world tour, Clark linked the question to the Middle East peace talks. “Certainly if the situation is then as it is now, we would not move the Canadian

embassy to Jerusalem” because it could “unbalance” the prospects for an agreement.

Broadbent spent a rough campaign week. He was beset by bad weather in Northern Ontario, signs that the proNDP campaign by big labor is off to a slow start and, worst of all, emerging signs of weakness in Toronto. Accordingly, Broadbent scrubbed a meeting in no-win Chicoutimi and flew to Toronto where, in the heart of the financial district, he announced a proposal to pay families earning less than $30,000 up to $1,000 a year to keep new mortgages at eight and nine per cent instead of the current rate of 11. The scheme would cost $330 million in the first year but would self-destruct if mortgage rates fell below nine per cent.

Risking possible voter wrath, the three leaders threw off more promises in other policy areas. In Halifax, Broadbent joined the others in proposing a $30-million bail-out of the tattered Halifax shipyard but urged government control of the company. In B.C., Trudeau promised a $4.5-million Crown corporation to promote agricultural exports; in London, he suggested a meeting with the provinces to reform pension policy aimed at indexing private funds against inflation and including home-makers in the Canada Pension Plan for the first time. In Peterborough, Ont., Clark advocated spending $200 million more to create jobs for young people, including a community goodworks corps.

Créditiste Roy, meanwhile, was up to his ears in Parti Québécois doings in the Lac St. Jean area. His touring was so poorly organized, reports Maclean’s Quebec bureau chief David Thomas, that Roy promptly fired his advance man and bemused PQ organizers took to describing their new old-line Créditiste comrades as “they.” But with Gallup showing fully 43 per cent of Quebec voters undecided, the Liberal push for at least 65 of Quebec’s 75 seats for a minority was still being threatened.

The CBC/Carleton poll also cast doubts on Liberal hopes for 45^ seats in Ontario. But even the Tories conceded that their 20-point spread in the poll in southern Ontario is exaggerated, and is closer to eight or 10 points—still enough, given Tory domination in the West, to put the Conservatives within range of a minority.

Says one Conservative official looking at the landscape: “People want a change. The question is, can they get a change with Trudeau? Can they chance a change with Clark?” >£>