COVER

FICKLE VOTERS, NEW LOYALTIES

ONE IN FOUR CHANGED AT LEAST ONCE

ROSS LAVER January 2 1989
COVER

FICKLE VOTERS, NEW LOYALTIES

ONE IN FOUR CHANGED AT LEAST ONCE

ROSS LAVER January 2 1989

Like many politicians, Brian Mulroney often talks about his vision of the future. Although the Prime Minister rarely says so explicitly, an important part of that vision is his desire to see the Progressive Conservatives replace the Liberals in the minds of the majority of Canadians as Canada’s natural governing party. Mulroney’s triumph in the 1984 election marked an important breakthrough for the party, but even many Tories acknowledged that the outcome of that race revealed as much about the unpopularity of the Liberals as it did about the Tories’ strength. Now, however, Mulroney appears closer to achieving his cherished political realignment. In the aftermath of last month’s federal election, the fifth annual Maclean’s/Decima poll indicates that significantly more Canadians identify with the Conservatives (37 per cent) than with the Liberals (29 per cent), no matter how they voted on Nov. 21.

Still, political scientists and other analysts disagree about the long-term implications of those results. Historian Michael Bliss of the University of Toronto, for one, said that if current trends continue, “the Conservatives will be the new governing party.” He added, “There is no doubt right now that the Conservatives are entrenched, but how easily they could be removed is another question.” Political scientist Dale Thomson of McGill University in Montreal, on the other hand, said that voters appear to be basing their decisions more on issues and leadership than on party loyalty. “People are not realigning themselves so much as they are weighing their choices.”

Indeed, the poll showed a remarkable degree of volatility among the voters. About one in four—26 per cent—said that they changed their minds about how to vote at least once during the 51-day campaign. Twelve per cent said that they did so more than once. Even more striking, one in five voters said that they decided which party to support only during the last two weeks of the campaign, and one in seven remained uncommitted until election day. “The level of volatility was stunning,” said Decima Research Ltd. chairman Allan Gregg, who conducted private polls for the Conservatives during the campaign. “It suggests that an increasing number of Canadians are prepared to extend or withdraw their support based on their own assessment of merit.” He added that, while the Tories now appear to have taken over from the Liberals as the party of choice of most Canadian voters, “the old notion of standing behind a party through thick and thin is disappearing.”

Bruce Kelsch, 28, a stockbroker from North Vancouver, was one of many respondents who made up their minds late in the campaign and agreed to talk to Maclean’s reporters. Kelsch said that he voted for the Conservatives in large part because he supports the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Even though Kelsch is not an admirer of Mulroney—describing him as “evasive”—he said that he feels close to the federal Tories on many economic issues, a position that he would not have felt comfortable with a few years ago. “I guess I have just gotten a little older and a little less radical,” he explained. “Ten years ago I was a borderline socialist. But as I gained experience, I found that some ideas, however well-meaning, just do not work. Free enterprise and working hard just seem to be the way to do things.”

Nationally, 37 per cent of the respondents said that they normally identified with the federal Tories, compared with 29 per cent for the Liberals and 19 per cent for the New Democratic Party. One per cent specified some other federal party, while 13 per cent said that they did not normally identify with any party. But the Tories’ lead over the Liberals in terms of party identification was not as great as in the election itself. The Conservatives received 43 per cent of the votes on Nov. 21, while the Liberals received 32 per cent. That suggests that on election day, the Tories did significantly better than the Liberals in attracting support from so-called swing voters—people who are not normally loyal to any party.

Still, the poll indicates that underlying support for the Liberals remains strong in some parts of the country. In Ontario, 37 per cent of those polled said that they normally identified with the Liberals, outnumbering the Tories at 33 per cent and the NDP at 21 per cent. In all other regions, the Tories led in party identification. But, although the Tories won 53 per cent of the vote in Quebec on Nov. 21, only 34 per cent of the respondents in that province said that they normally identified with the party. The Liberals were close behind with 32 per cent. Said Gregg: “In 1984, a lot of Quebecers voted for the PCs but did not really feel completely at home with the party—they tended to say that they did not identify with any party. But this is the first time in decades that they have been ahead in Quebec in party identification.”

Yvon Gagné, a 35-year-old mechanic from Trois-Rivières, Que., is typical of the large number of voters in his province who have gravitated to the Conservatives. Until Pierre Trudeau resigned as prime minister in June, 1984, Gagné felt most comfortable with the federal Liberals. But he said that Trudeau’s successor, John Turner, did not inspire him. As a result, four years ago he voted for the Tories for the first time. Since then, he said, he has felt at home in the party. “Mulroney created a lot of jobs—it went well in his first term,” he said. “I was a bit scared of free trade at first but now I go along with it.”

The poll also shows that voters under 40 in Quebec are somewhat more likely than older voters to support the Tories: 35 per cent of voters aged 18 to 39 said that they identified with the Conservatives, compared with 30 per cent of those between 40 and 64. Said poll respondent and Tory supporter Réal Lambert, 25, an electronics technician from the Montreal suburb of Longueuil: “The party line corresponds with my views. The Conservatives have worked hard to boost the economy, and Quebec was favored. Not that we were the government’s pet but we got equal status with the Meech Lake constitutional accord.”

Still, there is no academic consensus about the extent to which the Tories’ success in winning back-to-back majorities signals a fundamental shift in the political landscape. Said McGill’s Thomson: “It is becoming obvious that Canadians’ values over the past 10 years have become more small-c conservative.” But he added that the three major parties do not appear to have the solid base of support that they once had. “Increasingly, people are deciding that they are not going to vote a particular way unless they have a reason to do so, rather than voting along traditional party lines.”

Underscoring that point, 47 per cent of the respondents said that issues were the most important factor in deciding how to vote. Only 15 per cent said that they were guided mainly by party loyalty. The rest split, at 18 per cent each, between those who voted according to their assessments of the party leaders and those who said that their local candidate was the main factor. Poll respondent Wendy Allen, 40, a real estate agent in Blackstock, Ont., said that she favored the Liberals a year ago but switched her vote to the Tories partly because of free trade but also because, she said, “I just believe that Mulroney is the stronger leader.” Said George Perlin, a political scientist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.: “The fact that a significant proportion of the electorate is inclined to move from one party to another because of leadership and issues makes the notion of partisan realignment suspect.” Indeed, Perlin said that when Canadians are asked which party they identify with, they often simply name the one they voted for most recently. “It does not necessarily mean there is any enduring loyalty.”

Although support for the Tories was broadly distributed across the demographic spectrum, the poll shows that their voters were disproportionately male and rural-based, with household incomes over $45,000 a year. The men among the poll participants voted for the Conservatives by a margin of 18 points (38 per cent, compared to 20 per cent for the Liberals and 14 for the NDP), while among women the gap was 11 points (35 per cent Tory, 24 per cent Liberal, 16 per cent NDP). Support for the Tories was strongest among working men (39 per cent), retired people (40 per cent) and homemakers (43 per cent). But the Tories did not do as well among working women (28 per cent), urban voters (32 per cent) and those aged 18 to 24 (32 per cent).

The Liberals trailed the Tories in all age groups, but the gap was narrowest among young voters. Among students, support for the two parties was tied at 33 per cent each, with the NDP at 18 per cent. The Liberals led among voters of Mediterranean ethnic background (52 per cent, compared with the Tories’ 19 per cent) but did badly among voters of British ancestry (20 per cent, to the Tories’ 35 per cent) and those of Northern European extraction (14 per cent, to 36 per cent for the PCs). The New Democrats achieved their highest level of support—24 per cent—from visible minorities, but were backed by only 16 per cent of those of British ancestry and 15 per cent of French-Canadians. Other groups that voted disproportionately for the NDP included students, university graduates and working women.

Only four per cent of respondents voted for one of the other parties, including the western-based Reform party, the Christian Heritage Party and the Confederation of Regions. Poll respondent Sunday Thompson, 42, a homemaker in Watford, Ont., who says that religion is becoming more important in her life, belongs to the Christian Heritage Party. But the poll suggests that support for such parties is not always deeply rooted: 28 per cent of those who voted for a fringe party made their decision during the last two weeks of the campaign, 29 per cent on election day. Kevin Lewis, another respondent, said that he made up his mind to vote for the Reform party in the polling booth. “It was iffy between the PCs and the Reform party,” said Lewis, 26, a rancher in Cowley, Alta. “I thought, ‘Why not give them a chance?’ ” And policeman Daniel Small, 34, of Devon, Alta., said that in previous federal elections he has supported the Conservatives. But on Nov. 21, he voted Christian Heritage, in part because of the party’s stand against abortion. “For the first time in my life, I felt that I could vote based on my beliefs as a Christian,” he said.

When asked to specify the most important issue in the campaign, 58 per cent of the sample named free trade. The next most common response was the economy (13 per cent), followed by social programs and the environment (eight per cent). But there were profound regional differences: 11 per cent of Quebecers and of Metropolitan Toronto residents said that the environment was most important, compared with only four per cent of Prairie respondents. The number of voters who said that social programs were the key issue ranged from seven per cent in Ontario to 10 per cent in Quebec.

The poll also indicates that relatively few Canadians—eight per cent of those polled—want the FTA to be cancelled outright. But 53 per cent said after the election that there should be a national referendum on the issue. Only 35 per cent said that the deal should be pushed through Parliament.

At the same time, 31 per cent of poll participants who voted Liberal this time and 35 per cent of NDP voters said that they were in favor of free trade, even though the parties they voted for campaigned against it. Said André Lavoie, 31, an electrical repairman in Jonquière, Que., in his follow-up interview: “I am in favor of free trade but, when I got to the voting station, I decided to vote for the NDP. I just did not want the Conservatives to get another majority.”

In contrast, only four per cent of those who voted Tory disagreed with that party’s position in favor of free trade. And only 15 per cent of Liberal and NDP voters said that they would like to see the deal scrapped. Said Gregg: “There are still a lot of people out there who have concerns about free trade, but the results suggest that they have lost the fire in their belly.”

The poll also seems to indicate that future politicians will be much like those who now hold office: male and well-to-do. Twenty-one per cent of the men in the survey said that they have considered in the past, or would consider in the present or future, running for political office, compared to only 10 per cent of female respondents. And 29 per cent of those in households earning more than $45,000 a year would consider running, more than three times the rate among respondents from homes earning between $10,000 and $15,000 a year. Overall, the fact that 75 per cent of eligible voters actually cast a ballot suggests that Canadians are uncommonly interested in how they are governed. But rather than taking part themselves, the vast majority seem to view politics mainly as a spectator sport.