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Next territorial election's outcome is anybody's guess

Since being elected in the fall of 2002, the Yukon Party has now been in office for 12 years and 18 days.

Since being elected in the fall of 2002, the Yukon Party has now been in office for 12 years and 18 days. It is now the longest-serving government in Yukon history, which is an impressive feat, even although elected government in the territory is only 35 years old.

Barring an unexpected snap election, by the time we next go to the polls the Fentie-Pasloski government will have lasted longer than the Chretien-Martin Liberals did at the federal level.

And the Yukon Party could very well win again.

I expected that it would be either defeated or reduced to a minority in the last two elections and was wrong both times. This time I will refrain from making any predictions.

For all we know we could be sitting here in 2045 looking back at a reign that outlasted what is now the Lougheed-Getty-Klein-Stelmach-Redford-Prentice era (and counting) in Alberta.

Or maybe the Yukon Party is in its dying days and the next election will usher in a new era of progressive governance in the territory. Perhaps Yukoners are growing tired of court battles and status quo government.

It has happened before.

Before this current era of relative stability, the Yukon went through a phase where it booted out the incumbent in every election. In the 12 years preceding the election of the Fentie-led Yukon Party in 2002, Yukoners were led by the NDP, then the Yukon Party, then the NDP again, and then the Liberals. Maybe Yukoners have had enough of the same-old same-old.

I often hear people confidently predict the outcome of the next election. How do you know? You don’t really.

Unlike in federal politics, we know very little about the voting intentions of Yukoners or what issues drive them. At the federal level there are countless polls that give us a regular glimpse (however imperfectly) into the minds of voters. We have a pretty good idea how they feel about the leaders, what issues they feel are important and how they feel about the direction of the country.

In the Yukon we have little of that.

We have some limited polling data but, as is always the case when sampling a small population like the Yukon, it comes with a large statistical margin of error. If a poll says that two parties are neck-and-neck but the poll has a margin of error of five per cent, one party could be ahead of the other by as much as 10 per cent.

These margins make a big difference when it comes to victory or defeat, majority or minority. On the eve of the last election, a poll conducted by Datapath Systems had the NDP and Yukon Party tied at 35 per cent. The Yukon Party went on to win a majority government and beat the NDP 40 per cent to 33 per cent. With a 5.1 per cent margin of error, the pollsters could claim to have “nailed it” and be technically correct.

Predicting matters at a riding level - which is what really counts after all - is even more challenging. When the Yukon Electoral Boundaries Commission determined the current distribution of ridings in 2008, the average number of voters in each riding (excluding the small riding of Vuntut Gwitchin) was only 1,147. Take a few votes from one riding and sprinkle them around some others and the outcome of the elections can change completely.

During elections, partisan insiders know a lot more than the rest of society, as they have access to databases of canvassing data. When politicians come to your door they aren’t really there to change your mind. Yes, they hope to sway a few voters along the way, but the main goal is to find out who you are supporting, so they can enter it into a computer and (if you’re intending to vote for them) make sure you show up on election day. Save for the handful of voters who keep their cards close to their chest (or lie) the parties have a pretty good idea of the lay of the land.

But the messaging from the campaigns is so carefully scripted that one really can’t tell truth from spin (hint: it is all spin).

The rest of society is left to rely on its anecdotal sense of the “public mood,” which is tainted by a number of biases. Counting letters to the editor, comments on social media, or attendance at protests only really tells us about what the views of those who engage in those activities.

Our assessment of the public mood is distorted by what psychologists call the “false consensus effect” - our tendency to assume that the broader public believes what our peer group believes.

If your friends all have “Save the Peel” bumper stickers, you likely believe that the Yukon Party is in for a rough ride in the next election due to their recent loss in the Yukon Supreme Court over the botched land-use planning process and other environmental issues.

Alternatively, if you socialize with members of the Yukon Chamber of Mines, there is a good chance that you think the Yukon Party will cruise to victory because it’s the only one looking out for the “backbone” of the territory’s economy.

As someone who follows politics pretty closely I’m often asked who will win the next election. Please stop. I don’t know and neither do you. We’re just going to have to wait and find out.

Kyle Carruthers is a born and raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.