Friday, 29 April 2011

Aiming for a smash-and-grab majority

Will Harper regret strategy of running not to lose?
[Harper] has been convinced – through the bitter experiences of Canada’s right-of-centre parties over the past two decades – that Conservatives must make do with a low ceiling of support. And so he has become a leader unwilling to make a broad appeal to the electorate.

Mr. Harper was convinced as far back as his Reform Party days that it was folly to seek a big swath of voters. Preston Manning wanted to make a populist pitch that would appeal to Canadians, regardless of their political ideology. Mr. Harper always wanted an incremental approach.

... Following [the 2008 election], Mr. Harper started aiming primarily for what pollster Nik Nanos refers to as a “smash and grab” majority.

Rather than trying to usher in a blue wave, even in a key province or two, the Conservatives began trying to cobble together a voting coalition that would give them just enough votes in just enough ridings.

That meant, for instance, targeting certain ethnic minorities that could help them win in the suburbs. It meant solidifying support within the Jewish community, to help win a few urban seats. It meant trying to ensure strong voter turnout among their support base, largely through their law-and-order agenda. And it meant furiously ramping up their ground organization in ridings where they had fallen just short previously.

... [If the 35% Conservative base does prove enough for a majority], Mr. Harper might well have the least popular support of any majority prime minister in our history.

... by some accounts, he would actually prefer a narrow majority, since a larger coalition would be harder to keep together.
The Globe describes Harper's micro-targeting tactics in more detail.
In simpler times, political parties aimed at broad swaths of the population. Tailoring a message for women voters or blue-collar workers was considered the height of sophistication. But the new thinking suggests that’s a waste of time and money. Why examine broad categories when you can narrow your message to the five per cent of people you really need to sway?

What the parties are starting to do instead is called “micro-targeting,” aiming their policies and messages at narrow bands of the population to shift just enough votes to win. The Conservatives are by far the most sophisticated in Canada at this technique, which tries to understand population in new ways. They use market research data on buying habits and combine it with census data, internal polling and focus groups to shape their campaign’s direction and rhetoric.

This tactical shift has contributed to significant Conservative gains in 2006 and 2008. It also explains why their policy announcements have been relatively small-scale and focused.

... The dominant group in Surrey North [a single NDP/Conservative riding in BC], at 43 per cent, is what Environics identifies as fairly well-off, blue collar ,South Asian families, both Canadian-born and immigrant. They’re more likely to have large households and to speak a non-official language at home. Let’s call them Aspirasians.

In the 2008 election, 10 per cent of this group’s votes shifted toward the Conservatives, mostly at the expense of the NDP. That meant a gain of 1,600 votes for the Conservatives, and a loss of 1,300 votes for the NDP. The Conservatives gained a little less than 1,000 votes from two of the next largest groups, Canadian Tirekickers, mostly white exurban families, and Rust Collars, a low-income, mobile, working-class population.

Those swing votes are the difference between winning and losing. ...

What the Conservatives did, starting in the 2006 campaign, was combine their internal polling data with market research to develop profiles of the voters they thought they could reach. How to reach them is another question. Environics research shows the South Asian group’s values tend toward concepts such as “belonging to the global village,” an “ecological lifestyle” and “joy of consumption.” They are less likely than the average Canadian to identify with a Canadian identity or to have a flexible definition of family.

André Turcotte, a professor of communications at Carleton University who has worked in this field, says the Conservatives likely have a group such as the South Asians broken down into several smaller segments. Those from the Indian Punjab would be separated from those from Vietnam, those who have been here 15 years or less separated from the Canadian-born, as well as stats for those with children or grandparents at home.

It’s because they have that kind of data on the ridings they need to win that the Conservatives are employing micro-targeting in their policy platform, Prof. Turcotte said.

Income-splitting for couples with a stay-at-home parent, for example, appeals to young, suburban, traditional families. They tend to live in hotly contested ridings such as those in Surrey and Brampton.

... Jennifer Lees-Marshment, a professor and expert on political marketing, said the idea with micro-targeting is to use party resources more efficiently, but it also means small slices of the electorate become disproportionately significant. “It’s supposed to be a more practical and effective use of resources,” she said, “but democratically it’s problematic because they only bother with a tiny group of voters.”

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