Why the Conservatives Love the “Strategic” Voting Sites

April 18th, 2011

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[Welcome, National Newswatch readers!]

Every election campaign lately seems to mark the return of so-called "strategic voting" websites. No matter how carefully debunked their methodology, they keep coming back like elephant bamboo in the garden that you always think you've gotten out by the roots, but keeps popping back up to block the sunshine and steal all the nutrients from the other plants.

At least three strategic voting websites have popped up claiming to be using "local polling data" (in quotation marks, because there is no such data), in order to recommend which opposition party candidate people should vote for to "get rid of Stephen Harper" in 22, 33 or 50 ridings.

You would think that with all these sites ganging up on Conservative candidates, that party would be up in arms for fear of losing its shot at a majority, right?


To the contrary: they are gleeful, as evidenced by the fact that they have not said one peep about the three sites publicly since the campaign began.

Here's why:

  1. The sites' entire raison d'être validates the concept that people who voted for the Conservative Party in 2008 can't be appealed to further to change their vote now, and thus discourages people from even trying. This is a fundamentally defeatist proposition for the sites' founders to take, one that also underlies the decision by the Liberal Party not to bother making appeals in that marketplace, but to turn its attention towards other competitors instead. It also implicitly discourages people from voting at all where things seem "hopeless" based on previous election results, which feeds precisely into a vote suppression strategy for the Conservatives, and in fact does at least part of that suppression for them.
  2. Their dubious methodology is based on assumptions dressed up as hard data, using the results of seat projections down to the riding level, a technique that pollster Nik Nanos has recently likened to "a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy". I will explain below what the methodology is, and why it's so unreliable, but suffice it to say: the impression is being left that it's local polling when it is no such thing, and the sites' sponsors are either lying about that or at the very least omitting to tell the truth, because the opposite answer makes them feel important.
  3. The Conservatives can't believe their luck that these dubious recommendations from the academic salons of Yorkville (the same ones whose brilliant strategies inadvertantly helped elect Rob Ford Mayor of Toronto) have convinced trade unions like the Canadian Auto Workers to endorse candidates so right-wing they would easily fit into a Conservative government. If you want proof, look no further than two of the very last recruits to the Conservative Party's slate of candidates: former Liberal Joyce Bateman in Winnipeg South Centre, and former Liberal Sandy Lee in Western Arctic. Had either of those two been nominated under the party banner they sported mere weeks ago, they would have been hailed as a "progressive choice to stop Stephen Harper" by the strategic voting site sponsors. Certainly David Emerson was so endorsed in 2006, less than six weeks before he crossed the floor to take a cabinet job in the new Conservative government. In fact, if the Conservative Party falls a few seats short of a majority on May 2, Stephen Harper's first few calls will almost certainly be to certain opposition party members who could be enticed to cross the floor for a seat in cabinet. All of them with the Catch22 and/or Project "Democracy" seal of approval.
  4. The sites' obsession with who can win has virtually eliminated issue-based politics from either election coverage or debate at the riding level. This is a perfect state of affairs for a party such as the Conservatives which is consciously trying to move the ideological centre of the country a few inches to the right. Of course, if you weren't sure which party best reflected your point of view on the issues, you could always consult the CBC Vote Compass. Oh wait.
  5. They also promote confusion in cases where the party likely strong enough to win on its own is not the party that placed second in the last election. In fact, since the birth of "strategic voting" campaigns, the number of candidates who came up from third to win has dropped dramatically, but used to be rather large and changes according to the electoral cycle. I'll show the figures below. It is also borne of the belief by these sites that they need to appear "fair" to all the opposition parties, so they have to endorse at least some from each one, implying that the endorsements in fact are not those who can win, but merely a politically acceptable range of candidates from every party they didn't want to piss off. The best example of this error in 2008 was South Shore-St. Margaret's in Nova Scotia where a number of strategic voting guides recommended the Liberal candidate, who wound up placing third, and leaving the NDP candidate just shy of the required votes to achieve their stated objective of defeating Conservative M.P. Gerald Keddy. Keddy should put a link to these websites on his homepage.

Outside of the academic seat projections produced by the Laurier University Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (LISPOP) which takes great pains to point out that they are a snapshot in time, and are not accurate in predicting the outcomes in individual seats, amateur seat projections and strategic voting sites should be given a wide berth if they claim to be based on local polling, or to be able to predict a result in an individual riding, and how it might be changing from one day to the next during the current election campaign.

They should be particularly suspect when coming from people with no background in the polling industry, nor in statistics, or in managing election campaigns, and where they don't have even a single federal general election's track record behind them. Or need to build their list of "star" candidates by asking on Twitter. Or refuse to publish their detailed methodology.

Let's look at an example of how this works in a riding we'll call "RidingABCDEF". Below you will see the "Riding" results from 2004, followed by the results for that riding's "Province", and the "Offset" of the former from the latter. Next, the provincial sub-sample results from two "Polls" I could find from approximately the correct dates 60 and 30 days before voting day, their "Average", and the seat's "Projection" using the offset calculcated earlier.

Party 2004 E-60 E-30
Rid Prov Offset Prov Polls Avg Proj Prov Polls Avg Proj
A 49.7% 48.9% +0.9% 59% 54% 56.5% 57.4% 48% 52% 50% 50.9%
B 25.6%  33.9% -8.3% 23% 30% 26.5% 18.2% 33% 29% 31% 22.7%
16.0%  8.8% +7.2% 10% 8% 9.0% 16.2% 11% 8% 9.5% 16.7%
4.1%  4.6% -0.5% 4% 7% 5.5% 5.0% 5% 8% 6.5% 6.0%
E 3.4%  3.2% +0.2% 3% 2% 2.5% 2.7% 3% 3% 3.0% 3.2%
1.3%  0.7% +0.6% 1% 0.5% 1.1% –& 0% 0.6%

E-minus-30 is around the time the strategic voting sites start making their recommendations. Note that all candidates are not known until E-minus-21.

So, assuming it's Party A we want to defeat, we recommend party B on E-minus-30, right? Or maybe even say the riding is hopeless, worse still.

Well, let's see how that worked out by E-minus-15, and on E-Day.

Party 2004 E-15 2006
Rid Prov Offset Prov Polls Avg Proj Rid Prov Offset
A 49.7% 48.9% +0.9% 53% 26% 39.5% 40.4% 37.9% 42.1% -4.2%
B 25.6% 33.9% -8.3% 20% 12% 18% 9.7% 10.0% 20.8% -10.8%
C 16.0% 8.8% +7.2% 15% 47% 31% 38.2% 39.5% 24.6% +14.9%
D 4.1% 4.6% -0.5% 9% 3% 6.0% 5.5% 8.0% 7.5% +0.5%
E 3.4% 3.2% +0.2% 3% 3.0% 3.2% 4.1% 4.0% +0.1%
F 1.3% 0.7% +0.6% 0% 0.6% 0.5% 1.1% +0.6%

Whoa! Look at Party C. It came out of nowhere on E-minus-15, but only in one of the two polls picked here at random. Plus all our materials endorsing Party B as the best way to beat Party A have already gone to the printer and are in the mail, and resources have already been applied to the ridings according to the earlier ranking!

Suddenly having too many people following the E-minus-30 recommendation to vote for Party B (communication being imperfect, particularly when correcting the record) would have inadvertantly reelected Party A, and completely missed the last minute surge of Party C. And even on E-minus-15 you'd have to be prescient to know which poll was right.

Can anyone guess which riding this is, by the way? All the above numbers are real.

As a bonus question, which party's leader: A, B, C, D, or E is meeting with the mayor of the city this riding is in today (Monday) on their leader's tour?

Now let's look at the number of seats won from third place in recent elections:

Seats by Rank of Previous Winner (either By-election or General Election), 1993-2008

Election 1 2 3 4 5 n/a* Total
* Winning party did not exist, or winner had been/became Independent, etc.
2008 GE 268 38 1   1   308
2006 GE 253 46 7 1   1 308
2004 GE 175 39 61 30 2 1 308
2000 GE 269 25 7       301
1997 GE 248 35 12 5   1 301
1993 GE 93 86 26 24 5 61 295

Interestingly, even though the government didn't change until 2006, the 2004 election already demonstrated a lot of shifts, due mainly to the merger of the two conservative parties. And in 1993, with two new major parties contesting seats, incumbency was worth less than ever.

If you didn't read my plea not to vote strategically in the last election, I urge you to take another look now. A vote "against" someone or something is a vote in favour of nothing. It gives no mandate to elected officials, creates all the wrong incentives for the politicians who are elected that way, and guarantees that Parliament will descend even further into the partisan barking we see there now. Indeed the perverse problems with the methodology itself have led respected website Democratic Space author Greg Morrow to stop publishing his "strategic voting guide" from previous elections.

In this election, read the platforms, watch the debates, take a measure of the leaders and the candidates, and vote your heart. If everyone did that, who knows what we might come up with together.

63 Responses to “Why the Conservatives Love the “Strategic” Voting Sites”

  1. William says:

    Well let’s hope these various groups can help get the vote out and we an increase in voter turn-out from 2011.

    But already I see the mainstream media is talking up voter dissatisfaction and how voter turn-out could be lower than 2008. This despite the fact that they could be trumpeting the higher than expected advanced poll turn-out.

    Again it seems the media is manufacturing consent with the global conservative mantra that only their voters should be encouraged and entitled to vote.

  2. hoopz says:

    What’s the point in talking about incentive when the system does not reward it? Based on geography and local politics, votes can most definitely be classified as effective or ineffective… just because there isn’t enough accurate polling data available to make strategic voting a reliable strategy, doesn’t mean that voting ideologically isn’t a dumber choice.

  3. Kyle Jones says:

    I really couldn’t disagree with you more. The sites might be bad, and based on bad info, and the reaction of the population might be incorrect, but the math of the current situation does not work.
    Unless the conservatives get in a few more times, we aren’t going to stop receiving such information. The harper gov’t not commenting on it is likely just due to the futility of that fight. Yes we can hope for better information.
    I am 28 years old and a Canadian, I have been in several elections both federal and provincial in several different ridings. I have always voted my conscience, and noticed that the numbers infallibly have added up so that it looks to me that the majority is liberal and that the conservatives win. The final straw for me what when the population of BC decided it didn’t want to change the first past the post system. I have sworn to myself never to vote again until the system is fixed.
    The major problem I see is that the math in general doesn’t work.
    ANY vote for ANYONE other then the top two is just diluting the pool and makes it more likely that the bigger of the bullies will win.
    If the greens or an independent are the next in line in your riding a) that is awesome, you have good luck b) then that is who you *must* vote for or you are reducing the odds that anyone you want will get in.
    It sucks, but that is how the math works out.
    Let me put it another way. If I were a conservative politician in a decent riding for me, I would be supporting the candidates that don’t stand a chance in any quiet way I could, especially in front of a hostile crowd, and promoting to any strong left voter that they should vote their conscience (while giving a few favorite examples from the group who don’t stand a chance, promoting them as the next best thing since sliced bread) While to my own voters I would be promoting loyalty and unitedness.
    Sometimes makes me wonder where some parties get their funding from…
    Simply put the conservatives want competition, it makes their job easier, but the system as a whole is broken. The digital age just shows it.

  4. Marc Moisan says:

    I completely agree with you that so called “strategic voting” is pointless in that it doesn’t work and it it is apalling to anyone that truely value democracy. People ought to vote their own choice at all time. The problem that we have in Canada is vote spliting: I support Party A, you support party B, the third guy support party C and the next two support Party D; result Party D wins even if A, B and C supporters didn’t want D in at all.

    My solution, ballots where you choose your first, second and third choices. If none has a majority in the riding, the lowest number of votes is eliminated and those that voted for that candidate have their 2nd choice applied and so on until a candidate has a majority in the riding. True democracy in action.

    But please, strategic voting is anti-democratic, senseless and honestly despicable as it encourage people to vote against their own political views.

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