Psephology 101, or election math for dummies

Successful politicians often have an uncanny knowledge of electoral math. Jean Chretien would often arrive in a city and startle the locals with his detailed poll-by-poll knowledge of the ridings in play.

Successful politicians often have an uncanny knowledge of electoral math.

Jean Chretien would often arrive in a city and startle the locals with his detailed poll-by-poll knowledge of the ridings in play. He knew how many seats he needed in, say, Manitoba, and which neighbourhoods and communities could deliver them.

Barack Obama came from behind to crush Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries because he and his campaign manager David Plouffe had a better understanding of how the primary system worked, and organized ‘county captains’ to get out the vote in counties the Clintonistas were ignoring. Hillary’s campaign looked great in the big cities and on TV, but not when the votes were counted.

A key part of electoral math is knowing the quirks of the voting system. Our ancient first-past-the-post system, love it or hate it, puts a premium on efficient voting. The thousands of Liberal votes in Calgary did Chretien no good. But a few hundred in Winnipeg could win another seat.

It’s the same in the Yukon, spiced up by the amazingly small numbers at play. In the 2006 election, for example, the Yukon Party won the election with 10 of the 18 seats.

But they only beat the second-place Liberals by 807 votes. And if just 425 voters in five ridings had gone red instead of blue, we would now have Premier Arthur Mitchell on the hustings trying to take credit for sky-high metal prices and the surge in transfer payments, instead of the Yukon Party.

Some back-of-the-envelope calculations show how few votes you really need to become the next premier and get your hands on the billion-dollar territorial budget. You need 10 seats to win. Using the 2006 voting results as a guide, if you targeted the 10 smallest ridings, had the same voter turnout as last time (73 per cent) and could win a seat with the same percentage of the vote (46 per cent on average), then you would need just 3,073 votes to be the next premier.

A lot of commentators talk about the problem as if the parties were arrayed along a spectrum with the Yukon Party on the right, the Liberals in the middle and the NDP on the left (with parties like the Christian Heritage Partiy or Greens wedged awkwardly somewhere along the line). Economists love this kind of setup, since it’s easy to model mathematically. There is even a classic economics problem involving two hotdog stand owners on a beach trying to figure out where to put their stands to maximize profit.

The answer is to crowd the middle, but of course electoral politics is more complicated than an economist’s beach.

Back in the 1960s, American academic William Riker applied the emerging concepts of “Game Theory” to elections. His idea was that successful politicians try to build the “minimum winning coalition;” that is, they try to attract enough groups of voters to win. This is a different strategy from promising everything to everybody to maximize total votes. Riker thought that this wasted time and effort, and required making promises to so many groups that the politician would start alienating other parts of her coalition.

Former Stephen Harper svengali Tom Flanagan adapted the theory to Canada, and thinks the federal Tories have built a sustainable coalition of “Western Populists,”“Traditional Tories” and immigrants. He calls it a “minimum connected coalition” because, in his view, the interests of all three groups around pro-business and family-friendly policies are well aligned. This makes it a more stable coalition than the 1980s Mulroney coalition that included francophone nationalists like Lucien Bouchard.

Stephen Harper is said to work carefully through the voter data, looking for small blocks of voters than can be peeled off the other parties and added to the Tory base. This explains the carefully targeted platform promises on things like tax breaks for children’s sports, unemployed older workers in small towns, apprentices, and so on.

So what does all this mean for the Yukon? For one thing, the “economist beach” metaphor doesn’t work well here. There are several blocks of voters, for example, that switch between the NDP and Conservatives but would rather drive their sleds through a lake of overflow than vote Liberal. Remember how easy it was for Dennis Fentie and John Edzerza to go from orange to blue without passing through red?

It looks like the Yukon Party is trying to protect the coalition that won it the last election, probably also hoping that the boom in mining has brought more blue-collar resource-industry workers and small-business voters to the Yukon.

The Liberals have been pursuing a classic Official Opposition strategy, occupying a broad swath of the political spectrum and acting as a “government in waiting.”

A big question is the NDP strategy and how effective it will be at energizing and expanding their own coalition of union members, environmentalists and working families. They have been focusing heavily on leader Liz Hanson with the word “Leadership” plastered everywhere. Unlike the other leaders, Hanson’s signs say “For Premier” in big letters. Her signs are also bigger and are being put up sooner than her candidates.’ The only NDP signs I saw in vote-rich Porter Creek last Sunday were Hanson signs, even though she is running downtown. And on the Carcross road, large Hanson signs were erected with a few smaller Kevin Barr (the local candidate) signs tacked around them. It’s more like an Alaska governor campaign than a traditional Yukon multi-candidate one.

Riker would likely criticize this strategy since it is hard to build a sustainable coalition on “leadership.” But it may attract votes from many voter blocks since leadership is a concept that resonates; it worked well for Jack Layton. We’ll see if the NDP follow it up with Harper-style platform promises to specific voter blocks.

We can also see how the Yukon Party is responding. They are trying to break up the NDP coalition. They are pushing a caricature of Hanson as a former bureaucrat who, having failed to destroy the resource industry as a senior official at DIAND, wants a “do-over” as premier. Hanson has been asking questions about whether mining companies pay enough royalties. Expect the Yukon Party to bring this up again and again. They clearly hope to leave Hanson with the vegan Riverdale environmental block and steal the blue-collar resource workers for their own coalition.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.

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