Valence Politics – The Economy and the Federal Conservatives

April has been a fairly good month for the federal Conservatives.

The party’s polling numbers seem to be trending upwards while Liberal numbers are headed in the opposite direction.  Since taking over as Liberal Leader in April 2013, almost every national poll has had the Liberals ahead of the Tories nationally.

The economy continues to grow at steady pace, the unemployment rate continues to drop, and the markets are performing well.

Controversies that plagued the Conservatives for much of 2013 and early 2014 are clearing up.  The robocalls issue is likely behind them and the Duffy-Wright affair seems less toxic than it did only months ago.

Over the next few months, we are going to write about the 2015 election and what the ballot question might be.  We will look at the dynamics of public opinion and assess what issues the three main parties in Canada will likely want the election to be fought on.

In the next few posts (with Ontario election analysis as well), I will spend some time assessing the role of the Canadian economy and the next election and the role of valence politics in driving voting behaviour.

According to Clarke et al. (2013) who have used the model extensively, “electoral choice is best understood as the product of the process of ‘valence’ or ‘performance’ politics. In a world of valence politics – where stakes are frequently high and risk is often better described as uncertainty – voters make choices primarily on the basis of evaluations of rival parties’ perceived abilities to deliver policy outcomes on salient issues involving broad consensus about what government should do.”

Take the economy as a classic example of a valence issue.

“Virtually everyone wants vigorous, sustainable economic growth coupled with low rates of unemployment and inflation. Similarly, a vast majority wish to live in a society that is not vulnerable to personal and national security threats posed by criminals, terrorists and miscellaneous miscreants. Again, almost everyone wants affordable, accessible and effective public services in areas such as education, health, transportation and environmental protection.”

Consistent concern with these issues means they usually dominate the political agenda – be it Canada, the US, or the UK.  As Clark et al, note, “Although the mix of valence issues varies over time , their continuing overall salience works to focus political debate on ‘who can do the job’ rather than on ‘what the job should be’.

The valence politics model has consistently done a good job at explaining voting behaviour in Canada,the U.S., and in the United Kingdom.

We only need to consider a number of recent provincial elections where the debate over “who can do the job” overshadowed other concerns.  Just as Adrian Dix in BC, Danielle Smith in AB, and Tim Hudak in Ontario the impact of voters not considering them viable and credible alternatives to the incumbent governments.  Governments which, by all accounts, were not particularly popular with their electorates.

For the Conservatives, the lessons from the valence politics model are that voters will support a party they consider most competent on the issue they care most about and consider the acceptability of alternatives when deciding whether to change government.

If they can make the next election about economic competence, risk aversion, and leadership, they have a good chance at winning.

So let’s look at some of the underlying public perceptions about the Conservative government on the issue of the economy.

Economic Evaluations (see the infographic below)

Take for example perceptions about the state of the economy in Canada.  The most recent data we have is from March 2014 but it demonstrates how well positioned the Conservatives are if they can move past the “scandals” that have dogged them for the past year.

Most Canadians (63%) describe the current state of the Canadian economy as good while about a third describing it as poor or very poor.  Among those who would consider voting Conservative in March, 76% described the Canadian economy positively compared to 54% among those who would not consider voting Conservative.

And few Canadians things will get worse in the next six months.  In March, only 17% believed that the Canadian economy would get worse, compared to 25% who believed it would improve and 59% who thought it would stay about the same.  Again, those in the Conservative Party’s universe (which is about 45% of the electorate) are less pessimistic about the economy than those who would not consider voting Tory.  There is a strong correlation between vote consideration and evaluations of the current and future economy.  The better the economy does and the more effective the contrast is between Mr. Harper and his opponents on economic competence, the more likely the Tories will convert those “consider” Tory voters into actual Tory supporters.

On top of these positive numbers for the Conservatives is the fact that they are improving.  Positive economic evaluations are up from January.

Harper as an Economic Manager

Along with more positive economic evaluations, our polling also finds that Mr. Harper and the Conservative Party’s reputation as economic managers has improved.

In January 2014, 24% of Canadians believed that the Conservatives would do an excellent or good job while  another 35% said they would do an acceptable job.  By March 2014, the percentage of those rating the Tories as excellent or good economic managers was up five points to 29% with the party’s acceptable rating up another two points.

Moreover, these numbers mask polarization in the electorate.  Among those who would consider voting Conservative, 55% consider the Conservatives as good or excellent economic managers.  This compares to only 8% among those who would not consider voting Conservative.   In other words, the electorate is sharply divided over the Conservative Party (no surprise) and its economic competence.

Conclusion

So can the Conservatives win in 2015?  If a majority of Canadians are positive about the economy and the Tories can stay away from more ethical problems, yes they can.  But voters are more complex then simple economic voting robots.  In the next few days, I’ll look at three specific economic voter groups based on their top issue of concern (taxes, retirement security, and job creation) which will provide some insight into what the Tories, and the opposition parties, need to do heading into 2015.

 Economy